By: Sukhvir Singh
When examining what enslaved persons valued and what they did not, it is easy to come to the conclusion that because their conditions and circumstance were so terrible, their overarching goal was to always to reach a place where they could be free and live under their own rule. Moreover, there are a number of slave narratives that detail how literate slaves used this skill to forge documents and navigate their way to freedom, one of the most famous narratives being of Frederick Douglass. First, any schooling that slaves received was very informal, and very seldom in the setting of a proper location and professional instructor. As seen with Frederick Douglass and most enslaved persons, he asked his master to teach him how to read.
“ The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud, for she often read aloud when her husband was absent, awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me, as well as my confidence in my mistress, emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read.”(69)
It is also very important to note that the circumstances for a slave to ask him master to teach him to read have to have been perfect. Masters would not want their slaves to know how to read, as it would weaken their ability to control them, as a literate slave could better maneuver the world and escape slavery. Additionally, for a slave to have such a trustworthy and legitimate relationship with their master was not common. Yes, slaves were trusted with the management and care of the property and owners, but that was their responsibility, the trustworthy relationship in this case refers to one in which the masters give information or reveal something that the slave can ultimately use to escape or go against the owners.
The blog opened with explaining how it was nearly impossible for slaves to receive an education, but the key word there is nearly. In the northern states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, while still difficult, enslaved persons could attend schools only for blacks where they could receive an education. James Smith was an enslaved person who was able to escape the clutches of slavery and receive a proper schooling in Massachusetts.
“I then made preparation to attend school at Wilbraham, Mass. After I had been there a while I became quite proficient in my studies, especially in mathematics, it being my favorite study. At first I found it difficult to keep up with the course of study; I overcame it, however, and progressed so rapidly that the students and the faculty of the academy gave me great praise.”
When one examines the lives of slaves who were fortunate enough to manage an education, whether formally or informally, it is hard to argue that these individuals were not significantly better off than other enslaved persons. James Smith explains that even in at his age, when learning how to read and write may have seemed pointless, he knew it would still be invaluable to him.
“ The reason I attended school there was because it was a more retired place for me. I was very ambitious to learn, for I knew I would be better qualified to enter into business for myself, which I had some thoughts of doing then”
Education’s ties to slavery and freedom exemplify the difference between what made a slave valuable as property. Masters and owners looked at the physical characteristics of slaves, as Walter Johnson showcases how slaves are prepared for purchase and showcasing. (Johnson 123). So an owner would have no benefit from having a slave that knew how to read and write, rather it would be a treat as I mentioned above.