It is a coming of age text which poses serious questions about the institution of slavery. Being a slave narrative, it not only narrates the life of a slave but poses serious questions on the socio-political scenario of the time. The journey of the protagonist makes it a bildungsroman, showing different facets of his life. The use of powerful language by the narrator adds to its effects on the reader. Since it is a first-hand account, it evokes a feeling of empathy in the reader, thus granting success to the writer who establishes a unique relationship with the reader.
The text critiques how slavery was normalized through the use of measures. The slaves were made to feel that the treatment they were getting was natural and inevitable and that they were born to be in this state. They were denied any sort of education or knowledge because that would put a threat on the entire institution of slavery. Their quest for literacy thus became a part of their resistance and the struggle for it. The slaves suffered from not just physical but psychological abuses as well. They were not even considered human beings and were denied any sort of basic right. They were considered to be emotionless and if by mistake any slave showed any emotion towards the other slave, they were severely punished for that. Lack of awareness on the part of the slave, was what had been used as the most important tool to keep them mute. To demand for one’s right, one needs to be aware of it and thus the slaves were always kept in the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy because the masters feared that the brightness of education will bring some power to the slaves, which the masters could not afford.
The text is also a scathing commentary on the dehumanizing aspect of slavery, not only on the slave but on the slave-holders as well. It comments on how slavery like a plague mutated the inherent good and gentility in a person, into something grotesque and fearsome. It encouraged dominance over life and even death of a racially different being and this discrimination was legalized as educating a black was considered an offense. Thus, even if some perceptive people thought of slavery as evil their opinions would be quickly brushed off and they would eventually be assimilated into the common discriminatory consciousness that run amuck amongst the slave holders. Owing to their violent punishment meted out on slaves, a deep psychological trauma is etched onto their minds. No doubt, the collective social memory of the slaves would be mixed feelings of fear, sadness, pain and remorse. But no matter how bleak the situation was, there were instances when Douglass still found hope for the future that eventually led to his emancipation. He always knew that he won’t remain a slave despite his hatred and suicidal tendency. Whether this yearning for freedom was inherent or not, one cannot truly know, but the role that education played was of utmost importance. It was because of education that Douglass was able to develop his critical thinking and was able to reflect upon his scenario. He could feel a range of emotions and expressed them with such conviction that it moved his audiences. Education incited in him the intellectual curiosity which nudged him on a path of self-learning. It played the most vital role in his emancipation. Thus education did not only play a direct hand in Douglass’s freedom from slavery, but also freedom from ignorance.