Monday, December 15, 2008

Considering Douglass Pt. 1

When looking back on our Underground Freedom Galleries exhibit, the looming presence of Frederick Douglass stood out to me both visually and linguistically. On the one hand, Douglass's striking image is captivating. But I was also moved by how the contributors to the exhibit responded to and wrote about this ex-slave.

I was especially interested in comments from a group of graduate students who worked with our colleague Jessica DeSpain this semester. Reading her students' responses helped us complete a cycle that began in June with our conversations with first-year students for the summer reading program on Douglass. The graduate students provided us with broader directions on where our conversations could lead.

"When I think of the many powerful ways Douglass deals with the issue of slavery in his book," wrote Kevin, "I always think back to his first taste of freedom: the written word." Kevin went on to note:

As Douglass learns to read, he sees his chance for freedom. With every new word he learns—and eventually, with every book he reads—he discovers the reasons why he “abhors and detests [his] enslavers.” The fact that Douglass is able to overthrow the shackles of slavery through the power of reading resonates deeply with me every time I read his quest for freedom. Even as a white student, I recognize the power of books; that not only can the written word free the mind of its societal shackles, it can also free the body from its physical shackles. Douglass recognized early that the educated class controlled the power structures of a supposedly “free” nation, and as he read and studied on his own, he learned how to escape to freedom. In addition, his freedom—provided through his self-taught education—not only brought him a physical freedom, but a true freedom of thought. That is how I often respond to Douglass's narrative, and it restores the true power that education brings to humankind.

"While at SIUE, I have read numerous works, fiction and non-fiction, that explore people facing adversity." wrote Bethany, another member of Jessica DeSpain's crew. "Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine opened my eyes to the issues of Japanese internment camps in the United States during WWII. An excerpt from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano provided another chance for me to learn how one slave gained freedom. Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a glimpse into the life of poor immigrants in America. All of these works, along with numerous others I have read for courses here, are a reminder of both the horrors and triumphs that helped create this country’s identity.”

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