Frederick Douglass stated in his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, that he once overheard the plantation owner telling his wife that education makes black men unfit to be slaves. The plantation owner made that revealing comment while bitterly rebuking his wife for teaching Douglass how to read. He said: “[Teaching slaves to read] is unlawful, as it is also unsafe, for it will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it. As to himself, learning will do him no good, but a great deal of harm, making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself [or will become too difficult to control].
Exactly what did the plantation owner mean when he said that education makes black men unfit for slavery? He meant that formal education counters white racism. It destroys the slave mentality, which is thinking that produces dependence, reliance on others, and other behavior associated with enslaved people. It produces access, mobility, and opportunity in the marketplace. It creates a thirst and demand for respect and dignity. It instills knowledge and erases ignorance.
As we see from the above quote, the plantation owner was especially fearful of Douglas and the other enslaved blacks reading the Bible and acquiring Biblical knowledge. He knew they would learn from the Bible that whites were not superior to other races and that blacks were not cursed and relegated to slavery by God the entire moral underpinnings of slavery would crumble. He knew they would learn from the Bible that God is a just God, who does not condone the enslavement of any race people since He created all people in His image. Additionally, he knew they would learn that the God of the Bible is not white or European and does not favor either of those people. He knew these powerful Biblical revelations would compel enslaved blacks to revolt and demand their freedom. To be precise, he knew formal education would elevate the thinking and desires of the enslaved blacks. He knew it was the key to freedom. Hence, he tried, unsuccessfully, to keep Douglass ignorant and uneducated. Nevertheless, Douglass and many other enslaved blacks thirsted for formal education and risked life and limb to acquire it.
Theresa Perry, one of the scholars who wrote Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among Black Students, explains that the fervent thirst for education of the enslaved blacks during slavery derived from their unique “philosophy of education,” a philosophy that said that “education is more than a symbol of freedom; it is freedom.” Perry maintains that this powerful philosophy enabled enslaved blacks to endure beatings, lynchings, amputations, and other forms of torture in order to acquire literacy. It even motivated them to use their scant wages to pay large sums of money to poor whites for reading lessons. Unfortunately, today many young blacks no longer consider education to be a path to or a symbol of freedom. They do not value education as our ancestors did. Our ancestors, many of whom suffered torture and death for literacy, would be appalled to know that some blacks today are wasting their opportunity to get formal education.
In fact, recently my wife, son and I went to the theatre to see the movie “12 Years a Slave.” It’s a movie about Solomon Northup, a free black man from Sarasota Springs, New York, who was drugged and sold into slavery by several white slave hunters. The movie graphically depicted the unimaginable and sadistic brutality and violence of the plantation owners. It was very tough watching that movie with all the hate and unrestrained debauchery that the plantation owners visited upon my ancestors. When we left the movie, I observed a group of black teens displaying all the stereotypical behavior associated with them. It was appalling to see that behavior from those teens just after witnessing only a sampling of the brutality our ancestors endured on those plantations so those very teens could have a better life. The behavior of those teens greatly disrespected the sacred sacrifices of the enslaved blacks.
As black parents, we should demand that our posterity honor the sacrifices our enslaved ancestors made for literacy by recapturing their philosophy of education and instilling it in our sons. We should hammer into our sons the idea that education is freedom, and we should explain to them that the best way to triumph over discrimination, racism, and oppression is to get lots of formal education. Furthermore, we should remind them often that real black power is academic excellence, and that achieving academic excellence does not mean acting white; rather, it is our true legacy and continues to be the source of our power and freedom!
 Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Collier, 1990), 79.
 T. Perry, C. Steele, and A. Hilliard, Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African American Students (Boston: Beacon, 2003), 13.