It’s hard to remember when I first chose to really think about race. Like I said, being a Montanan, and an extremely white Montanan at that, I didn’t know many people of color. My mother claims that I used to cheer for minority characters, even when they were the bad guys, but my clearest memory is being in 5th Grade and taking on a challenging assignment from my teacher Mr. Davey. Read an historical work from an upper reading level. I don’t know what prompted me to pick The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass but I have never been the same since.
Until I read Douglass’ first hand account of life as a slave I had done what–I think–many students do: heard the lectures, read the textbook, memorized the fact that slavery was really, really bad, but that we don’t do that anymore and moved on. It’s impossible to hold that thought while reading Douglass. Abstraction is blown to smithereens as things become real, visible and tangible. Blood is spilled, insults are hurled, chains are clamped on to skin and degradation and disdain are felt. The language is not terribly advanced (though students reading it as I write this have complained about its complexity), but the book isn’t about poetic expression, it’s about the emotional, physical and psychological effects of slavery on an individual.
18 years after that first reading I was riveted and moved all the more. The emotional weight and power with which he describes the destruction of his family is heart breaking. The personal strength and inspiration that arises as he acquires more and more knowledge is inspiring. I don’t know if my teaching will ever do justice to the work, not because kids today can’t handle it, but because it makes me feel so insignificant, so entranced and so moved that I just sit and mutter to myself. It might be because Douglass’ work is that good, or because I came to it when I did, but I think the why doesn’t matter as much as the what. And that “what” is truly phenomenal.