Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Underground Freedom Galleries

This wasn’t the typical easy summer reading. Many of the sixty incoming first-year students who participated in our reading program from June to August were shocked and disturbed by the horrors of slavery detailed in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 slave narrative. In particular, they found an early scene in the book where Douglass describes the horrible beating of his aunt at the hands of a ruthless slave master.

The students’ developing awareness, along with their varied responses to a common reading, contributed to our growing body of knowledge concerning writings about African American slavery. Over the last four years, students enrolled in African American literature courses here at SIUE have covered writings by ex-slaves such as Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, and Harriet Jacobs as well as literary interpretations of slavery by modern writers such as Robert Hayden, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, and Natasha Trethewey.

To the extent that the reading materials often fell outside many of the students’ typical educational curriculum, we have sometimes viewed our experience of increasing literacy of African American enslavement as an imperative underground activity. Later this fall, we’ll produce a public display (the underground freedom galleries) highlighting some of our various experiences reading literary art focusing on slavery.

In the meantime, we’ll utilize this space to document the routes of our reading and the development of our project.

Several of the students who read Douglass this summer said the book gave them new insight about the terrible instances of violence involved in slavery. They also commented on the tremendous inspiration gained from a resilient ex-slave who refused to remain in bondage.

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