Black History Month: Frederick Douglass—A Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is easily among the most renown of American slave narratives. Within the Narrative the most remember scene (certainly among our favorite) is that detailing the process by which he learned to read and write. It is a tale of him overcoming the degradation of slavery, the deprivation of his circumstance and his personal resilience in finding a way to access what he intuitively knew would be a valuable skill.
We have excerpted a few segments below. The lessons are clear:
- Recognize when one is falling into despair and resist it with action
- Use even the slimmest of openings to overcome even the most toughest challenges
- Look for creative ways to work around old obstacles
- After developing a plan, be persistent in its execution
Shadow of Despair
I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.
Using the slimmest of openings
From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. All this, however, was too late. The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.
I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.
I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.
The full text of Frederick Douglass Narrative, Chapter 7 can be found at the University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center
In honor of Black History Month, we will post an inspirational cultural item each day.