Frederick Douglas, The Voice of Freedom
Words have power. When young Freddy listened to Miss Sophia read the Bible aloud, he knew he wanted to read the Bible too. He asked if he might be taught how to read. Miss Sophia agreed, and he quickly mastered the alphabet and the ability to speak the letters aloud. Soon he was reading two- and three-letter words.
Mr. Hugh Auld was appalled when he learned his wife was teaching the alphabet to an enslaved black child. He explained that this was irresponsible and unlawful; that reading and writing would do Freddy no good, and would lead to harm. The reading lessons ended.
Freddy realized that words had power, not just of the master over the slave, but of the educated over the ignorant. He sought instruction elsewhere, learning from men he worked with and the white boys he befriended.
Doing errands in town, Freddy asked for directions by pointing to signs to learn pronunciation, and applied that phrasing to printed words. He learned that reading words brought education, writing words brought questions, pronouncing words brought delight, but pronouncing words of education brought influence.
Frederick bought a book called The Columbian Orator and read it repeatedly. It showed him how word and reason might sway minds. He practiced reading the book out loud. Then he practiced reading the book out loud in front of other slaves. Then he began to teach others how to read and write.
He began to dream of being free.
He used his ability to read to develop a plan to escape to the North. Once free, he joined William Lloyd Garrison in demanding the freedom of all slaves. Joining Mr. Garrison at conventions he was once asked to speak in front of a white audience, “At first, he stammered. He felt his limbs trembling and apologized for his ignorance, intimidated by the large crowds. He spoke extemporaneously. The audience was captivated. He drew his listeners in, as a man speaking not only for himself but for millions of others.” (The President and The Freedom Fighter)
He felt that he was not adequate to the performance of so great a task. He felt that by speaking he would be risking recapture and a return to slavery. But he also felt an undeniable calling that could help lead to freedom for others still bound by the “knots of servitude.”
Mr. Frederick Douglas became a voice of a people, a generation and even a century. It was not a natural voice, but a voice practiced, that when used, risked retaliation, violence and possible death. It was a voice that was taught not to speak. It was a voice many did not want to hear, and many more ignored due to its message. It was a voice that came from a person who was utterly rejected due to simply being born black, and a message that made many feel uncomfortable.
The pressure to not speak, in conditions not favorable, and to people who did not care, were constant and overwhelming in the mid-century 1800’s America. However, Mr. Freddy ignored all the impediments because he was confident he had a message that people needed to hear.
The launch of Frederick Douglas’s speaking career make a big impact.