Frederick Douglass’ autobiography follows the development of his earnest conviction of his innate humanity and liberty. This realization has its roots in his early childhood when he entertained “a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold [him] within its foul embrace” (Douglass, 43). The rest of his years as a slave are a continual struggle to retain this inborn sense of humanity in the face of repeated attempts to reduce him to a state of bestial apathy towards his natural liberty. Preservation of his sense of inherent freedom and humanity requires that his embryonic understanding be nourished through education from some trustworthy source which supports, deepens, and sophisticates the vague comprehension with which he is born. This source he discovers by learning to read.
Experience is the first form of education Douglass receives. As a small child he witnesses much brutality in plantation life. Recounting his experience of seeing his aunt brutally beaten by his master, he observes that “it was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and participant” (Douglass, 21). He speaks of the songs and chants of his people, each of which is “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains,” and traces his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” from his hearing of these songs (Douglass, 27, 28). Despite his horror at the injustices suffered by his people however, he does not “understand the deep meaning” of their sadness well enough to express it in concrete terms (Douglass, 27). He longs vaguely for freedom but has little comprehension of why the opposite is wrong and poor ability to phrase his intuition.
Moreover, though experience reveals to him the ugliness of the institution, in the long run it has the potential to deceive him. Natural sentiment, met with the sights the young Douglass witnesses, initially revolts. However, constant dehumanizing treatment can hardly fail to make some impression on most people, and the Narrative recounts the deadening effect slavery—both the experience of being enslaved and owning slaves—has upon the souls of men, black and white alike. The masters beastialize themselves by denying the humanity of other men, convincing themselves and others that these slaves are incapable of “virtuous freedom” (Douglass, 80). Slavery can prove as injurious” to such tyrants as it does to those from whom they have withheld freedom (Douglass, 49). The slaves in their turn, having no guide to reveal the path from servitude to freedom, begin to swallow the lie that they are not fit for the “privilege” of basic human liberty. Constant mistreatment and attempts to break their natural spirit can only reinforce such a misconception. Experience can degrade more than it enlightens, Douglass shows. Some further teacher is necessary to sustain the germ of liberty within the heart of a slave.
Douglass attains this further education through reading. Ironically enough, his master, Hugh Auld, is responsible for kindling Douglass' enthusiasm for this mode of education by remarking that to teach a slave his letters “would forever unfit him to be a slave” (Douglass, 45). Upon hearing this, Douglass realizes that “the white man's power to enslave the black man” is found in the former's ability to keep the latter illiterate. Books and education in language give “tongue to interesting thoughts of [Douglass'] soul, which had frequently flashed through [his] mind, and died away for lack of utterance (Douglass, 51). By preserving ideas in concrete words, a book helps to immortalize and clarify glimpses of the truth that appear in experience. In Douglass' soul, “freedom now appear[s] to disappear no more” (Douglass, 51).
The experience of slaves in the American South was of being perpetually ground deeper into a “beast-like stupor” that crippled the natural feeling of innate freedom. Insofar as his only education was experience, the indoctrination his brutal treatment imposed could “disgust the slave with freedom” by causing himself to believe himself unfit for it (Douglass, 81). Thus, the strength of the innate notion of human freedom is to some degree a matter of cultural inheritance, due to the influence of the education provided by one's culture. The result of Douglass' reading is that his education is not confined to the indoctrination pressed upon him by his cultural circumstances. His formation in knowledge and understanding “rekindles the few expiring embers of freedom,” and “revives in [him] the sense of [his] own manhood” (Douglass, 78).