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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
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My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,--a woman
of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control
previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own
industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her
business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing
effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to
behave towards her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I
could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early
instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in
a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she
seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to
look her in the face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none
left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and
her voice of tranquil music.
But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of
irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.
That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice,
made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic
face gave place to that of a demon.
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