“He should know nothing but to obey,” he reprimanded the boy and his wife, “and to do as he is told to do.” Anything more than that would make him unfit for them, and there would be no keeping him; for learning would make him immediately unmanageable, rebellious–even dangerous. Plus, he would grow terribly unhappy–a nuisance with which no one needed to be bothered.
The very decided manner in which the man spoke convinced the boy that he could rely confidently on the results of his learning. Whatever was kept hidden in books was to be sought because it would make him unfit to keep–the outcome the man most dreaded and the boy most desired. He was shown the door, the gateway to freedom from beneath the man’s tyranny. However trying the challenge, he decided to learn to read and write. His very life depended on it.
On his errands, he’d sneak a book and take a piece of bread along with him. He’d finish quickly, just in time to exchange a lesson for bread from one of the street boys who could read. With chalk, he’d scratch letters onto brick walls and pavement and copy the words from a spelling book until they looked just right.
It wasn’t long after he’d learned to read that the discontentment forecasted through his learning rushed over him. His bondage now had words, yet no remedy. He was tormented by the ache for freedom, yet all the more determined to have it one day.
At sixteen, he met two men who wanted to read and write, but like him, they weren’t permitted. He devoted himself to teaching them in secret. Friends got word of it, and in time, over forty people began to sneak weekly into their makeshift school, hoping with all their hearts to learn to read. The great light shed on their mental darkness was–to them–well worth a wretched beating should they be caught.
Decades later, this boy became one of the most prolific writers, orators, and intellectuals of his day, advising presidents and lecturing thousands both at home and as a diplomat. It was he who held the highest appointed public post in Washington. It was he who became the first African American citizen nominated for Vice Presidency. And it was he who was the most prominent abolitionist and civil rights advocate in American history.
His name was Frederick Douglass. And he was a runaway slave.