Introduction
in search of black readers
No scene from African American literary history is more familiar than
that of Frederick Douglass’s learning to read. In his 1845 autobiogra-
phy, Douglass describes how, when he was a young slave, his mistress
taught him the alphabet and how to spell basic words. When her
husband learned what she was doing, he promptly insisted she stop
Douglass’s lessons, telling her that ‘‘it was unlawful, as well as unsafe,
to teach a slave to read.’’ But rather than putting an end to Douglass’s
education, Mr. Auld’s words of warning to his wife only solidified
Douglass’s determination to learn to read. ‘‘If you teach that nigger . . .
how to read, there will be no keeping him,’’ Auld told his wife. ‘‘It
would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become
unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself,’’ Auld
continued, ‘‘it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It
would make him discontented and unhappy.’’ According to Douglass,
‘‘these words sank deep into [his] heart’’; they led him to understand
that ‘‘the white man’s power to enslave the black man’’ was located in
his ability to maintain the black man’s ignorance and his illiteracy.
Without the assistance of his mistress but armed with the discovery
that ‘‘what [his master] most dreaded, that I most desired,’’ Douglass
designed ingenious ways to continue his education surreptitiously.∞
Although the Aulds watched him vigilantly to prevent his learning to
read, Douglass nevertheless contrived ways to ‘‘steal’’ literacy, first
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