Why everyone should know Frederick Douglass whether it’s Black History Month or not
“Why do we have to learn this stuff?” Every math teacher hears that plaintive cry from time to time. And I used to hear it every time I taught a unit that highlighted Black History month in my all-white high school English classes. If asked today, I’d be tempted to say, “So you won’t grow up and say something stupid like President Trump did last week.”
The political left had a field day when a member of the press asked President Trump his opinion of Frederick Douglass’ contributions to civil rights, and the president referred to him in the present tense. (The man’s been dead for over 150 years.) I’m definitely no lefty and took no joy in Trump’s faux pas. But I wish that he had known that Frederick Douglass was one of the great abolitionists of the early 19th century. And I’m hoping the embarrassing incident will cause a lot more people to know and admire Frederick Douglass too. Red and yellow, black and white, everyone will find Douglass’ rise from slavery to become a lawyer, orator, and author inspiring. Read more about his life HERE and HERE
Booker T. Washington
Another admirable man everyone should be familiar with (in my opinion) is Booker T. Washington. Several of the characters in my novels Time and Again and Every Hill and Mountain were inspired by Washington’s life as told in his autobiography Up from Slavery. You can download a free copy of it HERE.
My first teacher on the subject of race was an aunt (God rest her soul). The lesson came when I was five or six and as a treat, she took me to shop at the Ben Franklin store. When we got out of the car, she called my attention to some people standing on the sidewalk across the street. “See those n***ers over there,” she whispered. “Watch out. They’ll cut your ears off if they ever hear you call them n***er.” The sad thing is, I think my aunt was really trying to help me.
It was the first time I’d heard the “N” word, and taking her teaching as Gospel truth, I solemnly promised never to use that word. For so many years I took it as the literal truth. My aunt’s anxiety was transmitted to me, but here’s the funny part: I couldn’t distinguish those people on the sidewalk from anyone else. I remember being so confused.
The Education of One White Woman
My racist education continued in the small rural town where I grew up. I don’t remember anyone slinging racial slurs in the elementary school, but maybe the subject of race never came up because the school was completely 100% bona fide white. My first experience meeting and speaking to a minority came when I reached high school in the late 1960s and was surprised to find four or five African-American students there. During that time, the news on TV was filled with stories about race riots in cities across the country, including nearby East St. Louis. I wondered (a bit indignantly) why those Negroes were so angry. After all, Lincoln had emancipated them, hadn’t he? The Negroes in our school seemed happy. Of course some of them seemed overly anxious to please and the rest just kept their heads down and mouths shut and worked on being invisible.
The African-American students at my high school never mentioned any reasons for discontent, and our teachers were completely silent about race issues. The rumor that Dr. Martin Luther King was a Communist made its way into discussions among students and around the family dinner table. And when he was assassinated, while we didn’t rejoice, we were relieved he wouldn’t be able to spread violence and his evil doctrines any more. I managed to graduate from high school and get on with adult life without ever once hearing anything about Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, “separate, but equal” or any of the other abominations the black community suffered through.
Books Defeat Ignorance
It wasn’t until I went to college that my ignorance began to be chipped away by the power of the written word. I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of using primary sources when I read Martin Luther King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” With no trumped up rumors and slanted newscasts between the writer and the reader, the truth came shining through on the page. I was astounded by his logic and moved to tears by his eloquence and gentleness. I decided that if he was a Communist, then I was an astronaut.
Later my brain was exercised with the biographies of Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington. Other books in the curriculum for this white woman’s continuing education were To Kill a Mockingbird and Black Like Me and Growing up Black and The Emancipation of Robert Sadler and Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
I invite you to explore these books and be inspired as I was. Respond and tell me your thoughts on the subject.
[Part of the above is excerpted from my blog article “The Education of One White Woman.” If you missed it when it came out earlier, you may read it in its entirety HERE]It would be so nice of you to share!