From 2016-2019, I taught 7th Grade US History. My counterpart teacher at the time assigned her students the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass’s autobiography. I quickly read it myself, fell in love with it, and added it into my history curriculum. After I taught it that first year, I decided that I would never teach early American history again without including it in full. I consider it to be the most important book for young people to read and study, especially young people who are below grade level or from disadvantaged households.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass contains in it the wisdom and inspiration needed to lift oneself out of any bad situation. These lessons empower young people to reach their potential in their own lives, but perhaps just as importantly, it communicates deep truths about the power of the human spirit, the limitlessness of human resilience, the complexity of human nature, and the struggle between good and evil.
Douglass models for us how to prevent ourselves from becoming bitter and resentful at the world, even when it treats us with gross unfairness and cruelty. He shows us how to keep our hearts from becoming hard, how to have compassion for our enemies and forgive them. He also teaches us the surprising truth that doing evil to another does just as much to destroy the humanity in the evildoer as it does to the person he is thrusting his evil upon. “Slavery proved as harmful to her as it was to me”, Douglass says of his mistress. He makes the almost shocking claim several times in the book that the institution of slavery harms the slaveholder as much as the slave. This truth, when understood deeply, enables a person to have compassion for those who have harmed him, and provides a pathway out of the damage that trauma can do. This is a healing truth I feel compelled to share with my students, especially those who have traumatic home lives.
The main lesson of the book, however, is the unstoppable power of literacy, knowledge, and critical thinking. Here are two student reflections on the book that I have gathered over the years:
“After reading the autobiography of Douglass, I realized just how lucky I am to not be in such a state like the time period Douglass was living in. This is when I realized that even though that some days, I don’t want to come to school, I don’t want to learn anything today, and I question the idea of getting an education, I realize just how much the slaves back in the time, wanted to have the privilege and the authority to get a stable education, and not remain clueless of what they do for the rest of their lives, I also realized that without the power of knowledge that they gained, they weren’t able to get anywhere in life. This is when I noticed that rather than being lazy and going to school with a wandering mind, at the end of the day, you’d be able to go home and think, Huh, I learned something today, and it feels great. This is why the book is so significant, it teaches a powerful lesson.”
“My opinion on the book is that Frederick Douglass was a good author and man who was very talented and intelligent. He taught others and educated them and also found ways to trick others to teach him how to read and write. I think this book is important because it shows that education is vital in freedom and being a human. It also shows the cruel and harsh life of a slave from birth to final days of being a slave.”
These are the empowering lessons that kids in poverty or from dysfunctional households need to hear, if we really cared about our kids we would ask ourselves, ‘what values and beliefs would help them succeed’? What attitudes and lessons would kids need to internalize that would enable them to stop the cycle of poverty, abuse, or dysfunction?
Sadly, this is not the question very many educators (and certainly not administrators or school boards) are asking themselves. If I had to come up with a question that they are asking themselves, based on what I have seen of their actions since I’ve been in the education field, it would be something along the lines of, ‘how can we make sure kids from disadvantaged families continue the cycle of poverty, dysfunction, and ignorance so that we can continue to easily control them and use them for our own purposes?” Actions speak louder than words.
Douglass’s message, that you can do anything you set your mind to if you make yourself literate, and seek knowledge, truth, and freedom, is antithetical to the message we as educators are giving kids. These days it is considered ‘white supremacy’ to tell your students that America is a land of opportunity, and that it is possible to climb the ladder of success. Even the claim that America is a meritocracy is considered hate speech in some big city schools in which I have worked.
There is a part in the book, where young Frederick goes to Baltimore to live with a new family, where his new mistress begins to teach him how to read. Her husband finds out, chastises her and demands she stop giving him lessons: “He told her, among other things that it was unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read. Pointing to me, he said, “If you teach that nigger to read, he will be spoiled as a slave. He will become unmanageable and of no value to his master. It will harm him as well; it will make him discontented.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirring up thoughts that had until then lain asleep. They explained things that I had not understood before. I now understood the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From this moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it when I least expected it. While I was sad at the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was glad to have learned, quite by accident, something of great worth from my master. Although I realized the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with great determination to learn how to read. The very firmness with which Mr. Auld spoke convinced me that he deeply believed the truth of what he was saying. What he most dreaded, I most desired. What he most loved, I most hated. That which was to him a great evil, to be carefully avoided, was to me a great good, to be earnestly sought. His arguments only served to inspire me. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the opposition of my master as to the kindly aid of my mistress.” Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Simon & Schuster.
History is filled with people and stories with the potential to inspire greatness in kids. If we really cared about kids, we would use history as a means to lift kids out of poverty and dysfunctional families. Instead, what is happening in many history classes these days is just the opposite. The 1619 Project has been adopted as mandatory curriculum in countless inner city schools, exactly where it can do the most harm. Kids are being taught that they have no capacity to change their lives or better themselves. They are told they are helpless victims born into the most oppressive country the world has ever seen. They are told that America is just as racist now as it ever was, that American society is against them and will never get it’s knee off of their necks.
I sometimes wonder if Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project has ever read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and how exactly she would explain away how Douglass describes the freedom, self-determination, and prosperity ex-slaves were enjoying in the North in the year 1838.
After Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and fled to the north, he was shocked at what he saw: “To me, however, the most astonishing thing was the condition of the blacks. Like me, many of them had escaped to New Bedford from slavery. I found many who had been free less than seven years but were living in finer houses and enjoying more of life’s comforts than the average Maryland slaveholder. My friend, Nathan Johnson lived in a neater house, dined at a better table, read more newspapers, and better understood the nation’s moral, religious, and political character than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot County, Maryland.”
I believe if Frederick Douglass were to come back to life today, he would reject The 1619 Project and the critical race theorists, and would be on the same page as the men and women who founded 1776 Unites, whose mission reads as follows:
“1776 Unites is a movement to liberate tens of millions of Americans…by helping them become agents of their own uplift and transformation, by embracing the true founding values of our country.”https://1776unites.com/