Freedom Essay, Research Paper
The struggle for freedom is one that is common among both women and men of all races. For centuries, humankind has used many methods to control and enslave their fellow men and women, one of the most common being the denial of an education.
The lives of Frederick Douglass, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass written by himself, and Sara Smolinsky in Bread Givers written by Anzia Yezierska are two excellent examples of the struggle to educate oneself in the pursuit of freedom. While their social circumstances were quite different, Frederick Douglass was a black male slave in the South in the early to mid 1800s and Sara Smolinsky was a Jewish immigrant growing up in the lower east side of New York in the 1920’s; they were both held captive by their oppressors. Frederick Douglass was a slave in the legal sense and Sara Smolinsky was “enslaved” by her father.
Both discovered that gaining an education was the key to their quest for freedom. Frederick Douglass came to this realization when he was about eight years old. He had gone to live with his new master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Auld. Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet, and had also begun to teach him how to spell small three of four letter words, when she was ordered to stop by her husband. “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” (22). “It would make him discontented and unhappy” (23). Frederick Douglass then realized the value an education holds: “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (23). Douglass had learned that his master feared his gaining an education for it would increase his desire for freedom and possibly enable him to attain it.
Sara Smolinsky’s epiphany came to her later in life. She was seventeen years old when she fled her parents’ failing grocery store in Elizabeth, NJ after a dispute with her father (Yezierska 135). She took the train back to New York and her sisters. She went first to see her sister, Bessie, at the fish market. The next day she went to her sister Mashah. Both sisters were living poor lives full of nothing but hard work and little money. Having realized that neither sister had room for her, or even the means to help her, she struck out on her own (Yezierska 151). Sara could see that the path they had taken was not right for her. Marriage had changed nothing for them, and Sara knew that she would have to find freedom on her own. She had been put out on the street by her brother in law, who she looked down on, and felt the need to prove her greatness to him and everyone else, but how? “And then it flashed to me. The story from the Sunday paper. A girl-slaving away in the shop. Her hair was already turning gray, and nothing had ever happened to her. Then suddenly she began to study in the night school, then college. And worked and studied, on and on, till she became a teacher in the schools” (Yezierska 155). At this moment Sara realized the value of an education. It was the path to freedom as well as a way to prove herself to her family.
Both Frederick Douglass and Sara Smolinsky faced struggles as a result of their decisions to pursue an education. Frederick Douglass had to study secretly, always with the fear that he would be discovered. After Mrs. Auld was instructed by her husband to stop the lessons, “She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself” (24). Douglass said, “From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself” (25). Douglass pursued his education knowing that if he were caught in this pursuit he would surely be severely punished with beatings and loss of any of the small privileges he had living with the Aulds.
Sara Smolinsky struggled for different reasons. Before she could enroll in school she had to find a place to live. At that time in New York it was very difficult for a young girl of Sara’s means to rent a room. She tried several places, each time told “no girls” and was about to “drop from weariness” when she noticed a sign for a cheap, private room. (Yezierska 158) She managed to convince the landlady to rent it to her. Next, Sara needed to find a job in order to pay the rent. She came upon a laundry that needed an ironer. However, when she went in to inquire about the job, she was faced with another uphill battle. The manager finally agreed to let her try and only gave her the work because he admired her “guts”. (Yezierska 160) After all this, Sara had yet to even enroll in school. After her first day of work, she went for some dinner and then, as tired as she was, she said, “Great dreams spurred my feet on my way to night school” (Yezierska 161). In order to live on her own and attend school, Sara would have to labor at the laundry and spend late nights working on homework. She would not have the same luxury that men in this society had. She could not dedicate all of her time to her studies while someone else provided for her and took care of her.
While Sara was enrolled in a formal school, Frederick Douglass’s method of getting an education was much different. Unable to go to a real school, he found another way. He tells of learning how to read: “The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers”. (25) When he was sent out on errands, Douglass would take along a book, finish his errands quickly, and have a little time to fit in a lesson before returning home. He had unlimited access to bread at home, which he would give to these “teachers” in exchange for “that more valuable bread of knowledge” (25). Learning to write took a different plan. When he was in Durgin and Bailey’s ship yard, he would see the ship carpenters prepare a piece of timber for use. When it was ready they would write on the timber which part of the ship it was to be used for. One for larboard side would be marked “L” or for the starboard forward side it would be marked “S.F.” and so forth. He managed to learn how to write all these letters, and then would challenge other boys to writing contests in order to learn what they knew. He also copied out of “Webster’s Spelling Book” and used Master Thomas’s old copy books for practice. “Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning to write.” (26)
The challenges and struggles faced when trying to obtain an education can be compounded by the sacrifices one has to make. Sara not only sacrificed her youth and the immediate income she could have earned had she chosen to just go to work and get married. She also made some more personal sacrifices. Her relationship with her mother suffered as a result of her decision to go to school. When her mother traveled all the way from New Jersey to bring Sara a featherbed, Sara was grateful. She was very happy to see her mother, but at the end of their visit she tells her mother she is too busy to come back to see her in Elizabeth saying “I’d do anything for you. I’d give away my life. but I can’t take time to go ‘way out to Elizabeth. Every little minute must go to my studies” (Yezierska 171). This decision would come back to haunt Sara years later at her mother’s deathbed. She made similar breaks in her relationships with her sisters in order to pursue her dream.
As a result of gaining their educations by any means necessary, both Frederick Douglass and Sara Smolinsky achieved some degree of freedom. Frederick Douglass managed finally to escape to the North and live “free” although he would always have to live in fear of being captured and returned to the South. He also eventually exercised his freedom to marry (48). As a slave, he was deprived of any family ties and this was a way to create some and further establish his identity.
Sara’s education freed her from several things. It freed her from the poverty conditions in which she grew up. It freed her from the control of her father, and she was eventually able to meet and fall in love with Hugo Seelig. The most ironic freedom that Sara earned was the freedom to finally forgive her father-the one person in her life who had been most opposed to her pursuit of knowledge. In the final chapter of Bread Givers, Sara saw her father close to death. Hugo got her a leave of absence from her teaching job so that she could care for him. “Day by day, I won his confidence and a sort of dependent affection”. (Yezierska 289) Her education had brought her to Hugo Seelig and Hugo had brought her love. Learning to love enabled her to open her heart to her father.
While neither Frederick Douglass nor Sara Smolinsky were freed from all burdens and fears as a result of their educations, both triumphed over great obstacles and prejudice in their pursuit. Douglass overcame the legal enslavement of himself and the racism inherent in society at that time. Sara overcame the traditions her family expected her to follow and the sexist views of society in regard to a woman’s need for an education and independence. The facts and figures learned in the process, while valuable, were only part of their education. It was the process itself, which gave them an even more valuable life lesson. Confidence in the face of fear and willing oneself to persevere even when facing overwhelming odds, along with emotional maturity were lessons that would serve any “student of life” in their continuous pursuit of freedom of all kinds.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Boston: 1845
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread givers. Revised Edition. 1925. New York: Persea, 1999