Rhetorical Analysis of Douglass
In the excerpt “Learning to Read and Write”, Frederick Douglass talks about his experiences in slavery living in his masters house and his struggle to learn how to read and write. Frederick Douglass was an African American social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman. Some of his other writings include “The Heroic Slave”, “My Bondage and My Freedom”, and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”.
In this excerpt, Frederick Douglass uses an empathic tone, imagery, certain verb choice, contrast, and metaphors to inform African Americans of how important it is to learn to read and write and also to inform a white American audience of the evils of slavery. I find Frederick Douglass to be relatively persuasive in his argument to his intended audiences. We know that one of his intended audiences is African Americans because he consistently states things such as “I was compelled to resort to various stratagems” and “Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write”.
These sentences show us how difficult it was for him and states how he had to go through many trials to finally learn to be literately correct. By not giving up, he shows us how important he thinks it is for slaves to learn how to read and write. We also know that his other audience were white Americans because of his use of contrast. He describes how his mistress changed from being a nice, helpful, and loving woman to being a mean, evil spirited brute because of the simple fact of being a slave holder and her husband’s characteristics rubbing off on her.
By stating “Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” he shows us how much of a negative effect slavery can be not only on African Americans, but also on white Americans. Frederick Douglass most likely chose this audience because many slaves probably did not know the extent of how important it was to read and write, or just didn’t know it was important at all. Frederick Douglass wanted slaves to be able to know what was happening in society and what was going on around them that their masters were not telling them.
As far as the white audience goes, he likely chose this audience to make slave owners and non-slave owners look at slavery a different way. The way he portrays slavery in my eyes is almost as a force that turned this woman (his mistress) into something that she is not. It makes slavery look like a disease spread on white Americans that makes them horrible people. Another audience that might be included are poor white children and/or teenagers. Throughout the excerpt, Douglass explains how he would use the poor white children as instructors to teach him how to read and write in exchange for food.
In the excerpt he writes “Have not I as good a right to be free as you have? ” These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy…” He could have chosen this audience because he knows that the children hold the future. This would be his way of convincing the younger kids to look down upon slavery. That could change the lives of African Americans forever. There could be a number of different audiences that Frederick Douglass was referring to, but the least likely would be extremely racist slave owners.
Racist slave owners probably wouldn’t even pick up something an African American wrote, let alone care what he had to say. The Logos in this excerpt has a structure of Frederick Douglass’s events going in chronological order. He opens this excerpt by telling how long he lived at his master’s house. He then goes on to describe how his mistress changed from a nice lady to a mean-spirited one. He explains how her doing so made it hard for him to read because she would always get angry whenever she would see him holding a book. He then describes how he would become friends with the poor white kids so that they would help him learn how to read.
Once he has learned to read, he starts to understand more of what is going on around him and he doesn’t like it. He begins to envy the ignorance of his fellow slaves. He meets two white men who encourage him to run away to the north to be free. Frederick considers it, but he wants to learn how to write first. He concludes this excerpt by describing how he learned to write by being in a ship-yard and also by daring the white kids that he knew more letters than them, tricking them into teaching him more letters. There wasn’t any flashbacks or foreshadowing in this excerpt. He went from beginning to end.
If Frederick Douglass did decide to use any literary time elements such as foreshadowing and flashbacks, it could have made this excerpt a bit more interesting. Although, the chronological order did just fine. Frederick Douglass’s main claim to his argument of the importance of slaves learning how to read and write is the fact that without that knowledge, slaves would just remain ignorant to the things happening around him. They would have to rely on other people’s words instead of their own. With slaves being ignorant to their surroundings, it would be impossible for them to grow or to reach freedom.
Frederick Douglass has an automatic appeal of credibility since this is an excerpt from his a narrative of his own life. Frederick Douglass also establishes Ethos when he started to think logically by learning to read. The more he learned, the more he was building his character to get what he wanted. He also builds character by choosing not to run away when the white men told him too. He knew there was a chance of them tricking him to run away just so they can catch him and get an award. He decided to take the opportunity to learn to write before he would run away.
His character can also be determined by the title and even the first sentence of the story. “I lived in Master Hugh’s family about seven years. ” This shows that he is just like any other slave even though he found a way to educate himself. This grabs the attention of his audiences and makes him as an author credible and trustworthy. Frederick Douglass appeals to Pathos in this excerpt. Because this is a true story, all the hardships his mistress put him through and all the trouble he had to go through and endure just to learn to read and write, give off real emotions.
The fact that this really happened to him has more of an effect on his audience than if this was fiction. We see Douglass saying that he regrets his own existence and he wished himself dead. This makes the audience feel extremely sad and sorry for him. One way that Frederick Douglass uses pathos to persuade his audience is by him stating how bad he felt once he did learn how to read and write and how he envied the people who couldn’t. One would think that by him saying that would push someone to not want to learn to read, but it is the reason he feels this way that would persuade them.
The reason he feels this way is because now he knows things that he’s never known and he knows how bad things are for slaves. That would persuade someone to want to know as much information as he does. He also establishes Kairos in this excerpt because of the fact that with only a few modifications, this same story could have been writing in modern times. Although slavery is not legal in America, it is in some parts of the world. There’s also illegal slavery in America such as human trafficking.
It could be the same story of a person being trafficked trying to learn to read and write, another language maybe, in order to escape. It also could be told in ancient times with the slaves in Egypt. That’s just a few examples of how this excerpt could be told in multiple time periods. In this excerpt “Learning to Read and Write” we see how Frederick Douglass used rhetoric devices Logos, Pathos, Ethos, and Kairos. Also we see how he used different literary elements to establish those. Frederick Douglass effectively persuaded his audience of African Americans and white Americans to show the importance of learning to read and write and to inform how evil slavery really was.