Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis of Chapter VI


Douglass was elated with his mistress upon their first meeting. She never had slaves before and was dependent upon herself before she was married. She was "in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery." She was good, kind, and friendly. Acting sycophantic or ignorant did not work with her; she did not get offended if a slave looked her in the eyes or spoke to her.

Unfortunately, this amiability and kindness was short-lived. She too would become full of rage, menace, capriciousness, and impatience. She was a perfect example of how slavery was not only detrimental for the slave but for the slaveholder as well.

When Douglass first went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she decided to try and teach him his ABCs. As soon as her husband found out he forbade her to continue the instruction. He explained that if a slave was taught to read, it would spoil him and make him unfit to be a slave. He would become unmanageable and freethinking as well as discontented and morose.

When Douglass heard this he was astounded; "it was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain." The pathway from slavery to freedom was now illuminated. Even though Douglass was sad to lose his instruction from his mistress, he was grateful to have the reality of the power of learning made clear to him.

Douglass decided that he would pursue reading and learning on his own. His master's assurance on the danger of a slave learning their letters cemented in his mind how important this was. The "evil" Mr. Auld identified was to be sought after with all diligence.

It was very clear that slaves were treated differently in Baltimore than they were in the country. In the city, a slave was closer to a free man; he had clothing, food, and more privileges. Masters did not want the reputation of being a cruel slaveholder, and therefore did not engage in acts of heightened cruelty for fear of public shame. Most slaves were taken care of far better than on the plantations.

There were some exceptions, however. Douglass related the story of Mr. Thomas Hamilton's slaves, Henrietta and Mary. The two women were the most "mangled and emaciated creatures" Douglass had ever seen. Mary's head, neck, and shoulders were cut to pieces. Most of the whippings were administered by Mrs. Hamilton. Barely an hour could pass without intense verbal epithets and beatings. The women were also starved nearly to death. Most distressingly, "so much was Mary kicked and cut to pieces, that she was oftener called 'pecked' than by her name."


In this chapter the young Douglass comes face-to-face with the potency and power of literacy when his master forbids Mrs. Auld to teach him his letters. Douglass hears Auld explain that when a slave learns to read and write he is no longer fit to be enslaved; he becomes intractable, unmanageable, discontent, and rebellious. Douglass is flabbergasted at Auld's explanation and immediately decides he will do everything in his power to attain literacy. In a significant 1994 critical article, Daniel J. Royer explicates how the process of literacy becomes a part of communal involvement. He first notes that slave narratives often demonstrated the way in which literacy "enabled and empowered blacks to gain freedom from, and control over, the ruling culture that enslaved them" and how "literacy, as a tool of white hegemony, sought to exclude and dominate illiterate blacks." Douglass's Narrative exemplifies these realities.

Royer looks at Douglass's autobiography and discusses how, for Douglass, the attainment of literacy was not about betraying black society, escaping from slavery psychologically, or moving away from traditional black culture. His literacy was about more than that: it was about understanding how literacy gave him awareness and control over the social means in which people "sustain discourse, knowledge, and reality" (Royer is quoting Deborah Brandt). Douglass did not step from one culture to another when he became literate; he moved from slave to fugitive to freeman with continuities existing between the three states.

When Douglass was a child he began to observe his place in the social world, wondering why he was a slave while others were masters. He began to see that he was not expelled from the social system or even outside of it, but existing within it and oppressed. Literacy would allow Douglass to "right himself and demythologize his social context," and it was not merely about memorizing words but understanding and naming the world. When Douglass learns how to write through duplicity he is "acting to transform the dehumanizing structure of the dominate culture...[and] reading the Columbian Orator in this same context is a way for Douglass to intervene, to orient himself to this new and foreign social context, and to involve himself in what is really important."

Literacy for Douglass is not only about liberating himself but also about integrating him into society and community - which were continually denied to him as a slave. Royer notes that when Auld explained why literacy was not appropriate for slaves, Douglass figured out that his master was not just talking about freedom but also his psychological wellbeing and his ability to take control of his own psyche. If Douglass was literate he would no longer be able to live in the system of slavery; he would be outside of it and try to run away with himself. Literacy "transforms the child-slave into a free-man."

Perhaps most importantly, even though for Douglass the process of becoming literate was a solitary one, it actually had a social and contextualizing, community-orienting result for him. Literacy helped a man be both a Negro and an American (according to W.E.B. DuBois). As Royer concludes, Douglass discovers in his literacy "a way to understand himself and still preach his message, and how, with language, he takes control of his own life and still involves himself in the lives of his black and white readers." Literacy is not merely about being free, but is about grounding oneself in human society.