The Empathy School: Frederick Douglass Still Teaches Us

This is the third in a series of reflections on empathy, The Empathy School. The series will be completed in the Summer of 2021.

My American Literature students had just finished discussing a particularly brutal section of The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. This section detailed how, after the death of one of his “owners,” a “valuation took place. Everyone and everything had to be “valued” to see what needed to be sold off and what could remain in the Maryland plantation. Douglass recalled standing next to horses, having men look at his entire body, teeth, ears, to determine his “worth.” Most devastating to Douglass however, was learning that his grandmother would be sent out to the woods to live on her own. Douglass knew this meant she was die, likely of starvation. The “owner” had a small shack built for her out in the woods but once there, she would be on her own. She was elderly and could not survive on her own. Douglass also recalled that his grandmother had literally “peopled” the plantation. She gave birth to other enslaved people, who gave birth to more enslaved people. But this was the gratitude she was shown after a long life.

Douglass describes this event as one of the most devastating of his life up to that point. He reflects on it in the Narrative, as one more piece of evidence, of the total barbarity of American slavery.

This was not an easy class discussion. The class was made up of about twenty-five high school juniors, all boys, sixteen to seventeen years old. In this particular class, there were about seven Black students.

After class, most were on their way out the door or gathering their book bags to leave. One white student, I’ll call him Kevin, was still sitting in his desk, looking a little shell-shocked. I walked over to him and asked if he was doing alright. He looked me right in the eyes and said “It was that bad, wasn’t it?” I said, “Yes, I think it was.” I urged him to keep thinking about what he had read. I told him we had a lot to learn from Douglass. He gathered his book and notebook and left the room.

This is what reading Frederick Douglass can do. He tells the brutal story of his own enslavement with such detail and care that we cannot help but be moved by it. He compels us toward empathy. People often say that reading Frederick Douglass is really good for our Black students and they are right. But I have to say, I think it is perhaps more important for the white students. They need to know the details and reflection that Douglass, such a direct and clear writer, can offer. He compels us toward empathy.

If you know a young person whose world might be deepened by reading about American slavery, give them a copy of Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This is the first of the three autobiographies that Douglass wrote during his remarkable life. He can teach us a lot.

The photograph above is from a mural of a young Frederick Douglass by Washington, D.C. painter, Luis Del Valle. The mural is at the base of the 11th Street Bridge in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast, Washington. D.C. I took the photograph this morning, 2/17/2021.

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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