HUNT COLUMN: The incompatibility of education and oppression

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, March 2, 2022

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By Cathy Hunt
Troup County School Board Chair

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” In one of several Black History Month presentations that I watched or listened to in February, I was reminded of this observation by Frederick Douglass. Then I recalled the interesting story, as shared in his autobiography, of how he learned to read, and I pulled a book off a shelf to re-read that chapter.

Born to an enslaved mother on a Maryland plantation around 1818, he was sent at the age of eight to serve a Baltimore family, the Aulds.

Early on, Mrs. Auld (described by Douglass as “kind and tender-hearted,” and by nature not fit to embrace the “career of slaveholding mistress”) enjoyed teaching him the alphabet and sight words alongside her own little boy.

However, when Mr. Auld became aware of this enterprise, he put an abrupt stop to it, recognizing that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”

Going forward, the boy was never allowed to even touch another book in the home.

But a fire had ignited in young Frederick’s heart.

He continued reading lessons with white playmates in the street, some of whom would give him ten minutes for the price of fresh-baked bread which he smuggled from the house, others who would do so because they liked the teaching itself.

By age 13, Douglass was reading fluently and had amassed a secret collection of small books and pamphlets.

The more knowledge he gained, the more discontented he became with his lot in life, reinforcing Mr. Auld’s opinion that slavery and education are indeed incompatible.

During his teenage years, Douglass was hired out by the Aulds to work on various plantations.

At one, a pious master offered to his slaves Sunday School lessons with an emphasis on reading the New Testament.

These sessions were well attended for a few months until other plantation owners, again recognizing the dangers of too much knowledge, demanded an end to them.

At age 21, Douglass escaped slavery and in very short order became a highly sought lecturer in the Northeast and wrote the first version of his eloquent autobiography. When it was published, he decided he would be safer going to live in England for a couple of years.

It was still an antebellum America in the 1840s. He returned to the United States when friends raised money to buy his freedom.

He went on to establish a newspaper, advise President Lincoln, work for civil rights and women’s suffrage, and hold many government offices.

Douglass’s story reminds us that literacy is fundamental to enlightenment and success.

In days gone by, it was about the only way to broaden your horizons and fill up idle hours.

Nowadays there are so many other media screaming for our attention that too many people put too little emphasis on the privilege and importance of reading.

If you are reading this, you recognize the value of the printed word. Think about how you can share your values with young, impressionable minds in your family and your community.