There was once a man named Frederick Douglass, he was a famed orator, abolitionist, reformer and author, among other things. But it did not start like this. He was born Frederick Bailey in 1818, in the United States. He was black. He along with hundreds of others, was born into slavery and was subject to all its horrors. His fortune, however, would soon change.
When his overseer died, he was given to Lucretia Auld, who in turn sent him to serve her brother in law, Hugh Auld. There, since he now worked in the house instead of the field, he discovered reading and was exposed to many readers and reading material. Needless to say, the action of reading fascinated him; he saw that words corresponded with sounds, almost one to one, and he decided to learn words, using Tommy Auld’s spelling book. Eventually, he asked Sophia Auld to help him learn and she complied, in spite of (or in ignorance of) the prohibition against the literacy of slaves.
He was soon discovered by Hugh, though, and Sophia no longer helped him. What Hugh said, however, was of utmost importance:
A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.*
Nevertheless, Frederick continued to learn and he even taught a few of his fellows. As he began to read publications ranging from newspapers to random books and political manuscripts, he began to think, to question slavery and it’s foundations (in this case, the Bible and Christianity played a huge role, since it was slavery’s justification). He condemned it, and fled to New England (there he changed his surname to Douglass) where slavery was illegal and where he eluded the bounty-hunters tasked with capturing escaped slaves.
If he hadn’t learned how to read, he would not have learned of his new haven, if he had not learned how to read, he wouldn’t even have thought that his condition was unjust. He would have remained in ignorance, in darkness, entirely subject to the whims of those who would control him and what he knew. Next time you say reading is boring, or useless, remember Frederick Douglas. Remember the man who, letter by letter and word by word, secured his freedom.
There is no bondage of the mind that could rival the chains of illiteracy.
Quoted from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, Chapter 21: the Path To Freedom, p. 356. Sagan, in turn, was quoting from Douglass’ autobiography. My primary source was Sagan’s book.