I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.
According to the dictionary, the form can be defined as the shape and structure of an object. The form would be Frederick Douglass’s body, shape, and how people see him, how he is perceived by the world around him, that is to say as a slave. On the other hand, ‘in fact’ can be defined as something that actually exists, as the reality, the truth. After his battle with Mr. Covey, he no longer feels like a slave. Even if the world still sees him just as a slave and not as a human being, he sees himself first of all as a human who is doomed to be a slave for the time being. He is not a slave by essence, although that is what a slave is supposed to believe. He sees it as step in his life, a ‘carrer’ ;not as a life condition « This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave».
The thought, according to which he does not feel as a slave and never will, derives from his education. Indeed, because of his education he has become a « slaveThinking », which is totally inconceivable. The word ‘slave’ is used to describe a person held in servitude as the chattel of another, generally called the master. In other words, a slave is an economic instrument that can be bought or sold. Based on this definition, the slave is closer to an object than a human being and therefore this means that he is lacking the ability to think and judge which is proper to mankind. Ignorance is thus, a concept which is part and parcel of the definition of the word « slave ». Being a slave means to be confined in the dark, to be held in ignorance and bondage. Thus slavery is opposed to freedom which can be defined as the state of someone who is not subject to a master or the ability to act according to his own choice, without having to refer to any authority. This is especially through the exercise of his thought and through education that an individual can access this freedom, becoming a full human being. Hence, we can see the tension and incompatibility of these two notions – slavery and education – in their own definitions.
First of all, Frederick Douglass argues that being educated gave him the possibility to think. By learning words, by learning their meanings, by reading, one enriched its vocabulary and therefore is able to widen its field of thinking. It is through education that he was able to learn concepts such as freedom or the « abolition » of slavery as he says it himself. Exercising his thinking is to get out of the ignorance in which the slave is confined. Thanks to education the slave can extricate himself from his condition of obedience and submission, by allowing him to think independently from his master. Then, if his body remains chained to slavery his mind can travel, break the chains, and go beyond the boundaries imposed by his condition. In order to illustrate this conflict between a free thought in an enslaved body, Frederick Douglass draw a distinction between a « slave in form » and « a slave in fact ». He describes himself as a slave in form but who is never going to be a slave in fact anymore because of his education. In a way being educated has set him free… but just in his mind.
However, Frederick Douglass emphasizes throughout the narrative on the fact that it was hard to be a slave after being educated, and this for two main reasons. The first one being that, when you are educated you go out from darkness and thus your are conscious about what is your condition which causes to yourself an immense inner pain due to frustration from not being able to escape from this condition. Being educated has « given him a view of his wretched condition without a remedy ». Secondly, the educated slave suffers from an external pain caused by the masters who despise and want to destroy any glimmer of hope, freedom or joy which might raise in their plantation and harm their business. Slaveholders fear smart slave because they can start opening a breach in the system by showing a bad example, leading others to rebellion by educating them as Douglass did in Hamilton’s plantation. A slave who has been educated does not conform to the expectations of slaveholders who are either choosing to reject him as Thomas did or break him as Mr Covey tried to. This issue is particularly well treated in the movie directed by Steve McQueen untitled Twelve Years a Slave.
From Paris to San Francisco my literary adventure…. a thought on education and freedom