Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Classroom discussion on Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life

I like to assign a guided book review in the US survey I (pre-Columbus to 1877) night course that I teach at Front Range Community College. The students complete a ten page paper based on the book and we spend a class session discussing it. Honestly, this is the most enjoyable class of the entire semester for me. I have assigned books on the Federalist Papers, John Brown’s Raid, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, for this and other courses I have taught in the past. This semester I assigned Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although written in 1845, it is very readable, powerful, graphic, and direct. Douglass was the most famous fugitive slave of the day and he dared to reveal that the slaveholders’ perception of themselves as enlightened paternalistic protectors of their slaves was nothing less than a poorly designed and cynical self-deceit. Instead of caring for their “property” by providing medical care, housing, clothing, food, and guidance as slaveholders publicly professed, Douglass showed how they violently abused and dehumanized the slaves. The Narrative Life recounts, among other things, that slaves received an inadequate quality and quantity of food, clothing, and housing from their masters. Nakedness, lack of bedding, and eating from a trough were among the methods that the slaveholders used to dehumanize their slaves. The students receive a much better depiction of slavery from Douglass than they can from the textbook or my lectures.

My fellow teachers know that each class or cohort seems to have its own personality, and this definitely comes out in discussions such as these. Previous classes have honed in on Douglass’s fight with Covey, his escape, and the dehumanizing nature of slavery to both slaves and slave holders. In the discussion this past Monday night, my current class focused more specifically on Douglass’s perseverance, resilience, and determination to escape slavery. They read The Narrative Life as a self-help manual that imparted some important life lessons. It was more than a history text to them.

The most interesting comments, however, questioned Douglass’s version of history. Some students felt that Douglass portrayed himself as the hero of his own life and gave little credit to others for any help they might have given him. Although brief, our discussion on the inherent subjectivity of autobiographies and memoirs touched upon the possibility that not everything Douglass wrote was necessarily true. Events could have been misrepresented by design or unintentionally. Douglass, too, had biases and political motives. We also considered how Douglass could have been protecting those who might have helped him. Southerners would strike back at Douglass by attacking those they could get their hands on, if they only knew who to attack. Overall, I was heartened by how much they got out of this book about slavery and American history, and, also, their cautious approach to consuming information. We need to be on our guard now more than ever.   

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