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The liberating power of reading
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The liberating power of reading

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. 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,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. 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, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove1 to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering2 . It gave me the best assurance that I might rely3 with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded4 , that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned5 , was to me a great good, to be diligently sought6 ; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odium7 attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master; and above all things, they would not be known as not giving a slave enough to eat. Every city slaveholder is anxious to have it known of him, that he feeds his slaves well; and it is due to them to say, that most of them do give their slaves enough to eat. There are, however, some painful exceptions to this rule. Directly opposite to us, on Philpot Street, lived Mr. Thomas Hamilton. He owned two slaves. Their names were Henrietta and Mary. Henrietta was about twenty-two years of age, Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated8 creatures I ever looked upon, these two were the most so.

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845.

1. made effort to 2. saying 3. have trust in 4. feared 5. avoided 6. searched for 7. cause hate 8. extremely thin
Voir les réponses


a) Describe Mrs Auld’s personality.

b) What does the text reveal about the relationship between man and wife at the time?

c) According to Mr Auld, what are the consequences of teaching a slave how to read?

d) How do white people maintain their power over slaves?

e) What effect did it have on F. Douglass? Why?

f) Does F. Douglass believe his master? Why?

g) What did he decide to do?

h) What is the difference in treatment between city slaves and plantation slaves?

i) Why is that so? What do masters fear?

j) How do the slaves of Mr Thomas Hamilton look? What can you deduce?

Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818.
At eight, he was sent to work in Baltimore, where he taught himself to read with The Columbian Orator (a famous collection of poems, speeches…). He escaped in 1838 thanks to Anna Murray, a free black woman, whom he then married.
From 1839, he engaged in speaking tours in the North & Midwest and travelled overseas to avoid re-enslavement between 1845 and 1847. At this time, he helped on the Underground Railroad, worked with William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith and John Brown.
When he came back to the United States, he bought a printing press and started publishing The North Star in 1847. It was his first abolitionist newspaper.
In 1863, he met President Lincoln during the Civil War and advocated equal pay for the black soldiers. He then had several high-ranking federal appointments and served under five presidents. In 1882, his wife died and he remarried a white woman, 20 years younger than him.
On February 20th , 1895, he attended a meeting for the National Council of Women, to defend women’s voting rights. He died that afternoon at 77.

Your time to shine!

Frederick Douglass, an amazing destiny!

In order to pay tribute to Frederick Douglass for the bicentennial of his birth, your school has decided to collect audio testimonies explaining what makes Frederick Douglass’s destiny unique. You decide to participate and record your testimony.

Frederick Douglass meets Mrs Auld 20 years after. Imagine their conversation.

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Do some additional research.

Prepare a note card. Practise speaking from your notes.

Express your feelings (impressed, enthusiastic,…).

Subject 1: introduce yourself and the reason why you want to participate.

Subject 1 and 2: use the biography above.

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