If there’s one voice that cannot be silenced in our modern era, it’s the fierce roar that rises from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s forthright account of his escape from slavery is so raw you can almost smell the stomach-turning metallic wreak coming off the blood-spattered pages. Rising from beneath the systematic brutal and psychological dehumanization that was American slavery, his Narrative of the Life is the tale of a man who insisted on being man not beast.
Douglass was an American hero of which our nation was utterly unworthy.
In the introduction to his story, Peter J. Gomes writes incisively about the way we rob books like Douglass’s of their power–and keep issues like racism at a tidy arm’s length:
“Race is the continuing moral dilemma of America, and the inheritance of slavery its ineradicable moral stain. The further we are removed from the circumstances of legal slavery and legal and social racial segregation, and the more eager we are to move beyond that inheritance and on to other issues, the more persistent that awful legacy becomes. The problem of race in America is not simply a ‘dilemma,’ as sociologist Gunnar Myrdal styled it in his famous study of the 1940s: it is a tragedy of Greek, even of biblical, proportions, where indeed the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, and beyond. It is increasingly fashionable to consign our tragedies to sepia-colored documentaries and to see them as part of the pageant of the growth of a great nation, and it is all too possible to do this when we read the tidy analyses of the historians or watch such brilliant productions as Ken Burn’s The Civl War on television–that marvel of technology which transforms reality into fantasy and reduces even the most brutal facts of history into a theme park montage. Thus our cultural amnesia is encouraged rather than confronted by the fascination with a past which we prefer to examine in sanitized tranquility, lest we be disturbed by facts and images too dangerous and frightening to contemplate.
One of the ways in which we protect ourselves from disturbing ideas is to label the medium in which those ideas are communicated as ‘classic.’ This provokes a certain reverence and ensures that the ideas will be isolated within their appropriate historical and literary period, and will not have the power to disturb us. For over a century and a half the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass has been branded a classic, assigned to the category of slave narrative and read perhaps only be specialists in the field, or cited during February celebrations of African-American history month. To read Douglass’s narrative, however, is to risk experiencing the power it unleashed upon its first readers, and to recoil in horror at the heroic and terrible tale that Douglass tells of his own experience of slavery. Time has not tamed the tale, and old wounds covered over by the scar tissue of history are capable of being reopened by the prose of this fugitive slave who was taught to read by his slave mistress; and who, as an ex-slave, became the most famous and articulate rebuke to the monstrous institution of slavery ever to speak or to write in America.”-Peter J. Gomes