literacy, exists as a moral and emotional being with private thoughts and feelings, his status as aslave confines him to a small sphere; his inborn capacities for perception and expression, andthus his ability to exert influence, are stymied by his status as a slave. To make a slave content,Douglass writes with loaded imagery, one must “darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible…annihilate the power of reason” (Douglass 58).
By contrast, literacy transforms his perception and understanding of freedom: literacy serves to enlighten; to shed rays of illumination upon his thitherto stunted moral and mental capacity; to expose his mind to the powers of reason; and to open up a new sphere, the discovery and navigation of which one cansecure freedom and change the
. The literate Douglass is able to form and utter hisown thoughts, “to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (Douglass 30).In learning to read and write, Douglass acquires the tools with which he can enter intodeliberation with other people and live in a truly public world, thereby fashioning an identity as acitizen with a communal role to play in a world of law and rights. Freedom, according toDouglass’
, is the ability to enter into coherent conflict with an opposition, to take partin principled debate, to submit the testimony of experience and reasoned expression on behalf of one’s ideas about truth and justice; slavery, by contrast, is the withholding of access to the political realm or the deprivation of the means to compete in that realm. Thus, Douglass’ literacyis the first step towards the achievement of his status as a freeman—as a more than slave, as acitizen, as a political being.Douglass writes of a text entitled
The Columbian Orator
, wherein he discovers adialogue, between a master and a runaway slave, in which the slave successfully persuades themaster that slavery is evil, whereupon the slave is granted his emancipation; this moment inDouglass’
reflects the enlightenment ideal that reason and persuasion can effect social
Douglass writes elsewhere, reading kept masters from “shutting me up in mental darkness” (Douglass 51).