What source does Douglass rely on to learn how to read and write as explained in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?
In Chapter VII, Douglass shows his determination to read and write by pursuing both through a variety of means. His mistress, Mrs. Auld, first teaches him his letters and the rudiments of reading until she realizes that it is dangerous to teach a slave to read and begins to actively prevent Douglass from reading. For instance, if she sees him with a newspaper, one method he used to practice reading, she takes it from him, and if he is in his room, she questions what he is doing there, fearing that he is reading.
Being forbidden to read only whets Frederick’s appetite for it. With reading at home now a problem, he turns to the poor white boys on the streets of Baltimore, who will help him learn in exchange for bread. Douglass is also able to get hold of books such as The Columbian Orator, which was a popular set of excerpts from writers as diverse as George Washington and Cicero. Douglass goes through a period when he realizes that reading has inflamed him with outrage over being a slave, and he wishes to go back to the time when he had not yet learned to read. Better to be like a “beast,” he thinks, then to know how he is being wronged.
He learns to write by copying the letters sailors write on boards to label them, copying out of books, and challenging boys to write letters so he can copy them. He explains to the reader that he is fortunate to be a slave in the city at this time, as it gives him more freedom of movement and because most masters are ashamed to abuse slaves where neighbors can overhear the screams. His role running errands offers him opportunities to meet people and to learn.
Frederick Douglass was initially taught how to read by his master’s wife, Mrs. Auld. Mrs. Auld taught Frederick the alphabet and small words before her husband forbade her from teaching Frederick. Frederick then realized that reading could be his path to freedom and decided to learn to read at any cost.
When Frederick would run his errands, he would always take a book and a piece of bread with him. Frederick would then exchange the bread for reading lessons from the poor white children. Frederick recalls reading The Columbian Orator and being profoundly affected by a dialogue between a slave and his master in which the slave argues for and wins his freedom. Frederick also recalls reading one of Sheridan’s influential speeches on behalf of Catholic emancipation.
Frederick learned to write by copying letters from pieces of timber at the shipyard, which were used to identify the location of the planks on the ship. He would then challenge literate boys to write as well as him and watch as they wrote articulate letters. Frederick then began copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book until he had expert penmanship.