"I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one." (1)
Frederick Douglass, 1845
Back in high school, we complained to our teachers about the lack of African American history in American history curriculum. We were not motivated by our history teachers--and now as adults and preservice teachers, we realize that as teenage students we were not empowered to discover beyond what was explicitly taught in class. We have designed the following lesson plan, inspired by and focusing on Frederick Douglass's classic 1845 "slave narrative," Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, to empower students to learn how to learn--and to provide, so to speak, their own light in darkness.
In recently reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we were struck by some disturbing parallels between the early 1800s and the early 2000s. For example, there is Douglass's famous account of how he, along with some other enslaved African Americans on a Maryland plantation, surreptitiously sought to use the Sabbath--the one day of respite from toil in the fields--to form a Bible-study group and to learn to read and write. Douglass writes: "... instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whiskey, we were trying to learn how to read ... they [the slaveholders] would rather see us engaged in those degrading sports than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings." (2) We enjoy sports, but we are disturbed by the disproportionate representation of African American males primarily excelling in sports instead of being Renaissance men and manifesting acumen in both athletics and academics. Why is it that, nationally, less than 50 percent of African American males are graduating from high school? (3) Why are so many African American males perceived as "at risk" instead of "resilient"? As we searched for answers to these questions, Douglass's seminal narrative provided us with a light in our darkness of historical ignorance about slavery and resilience. In his book, Douglass described how, in bondage, he worked long hours in the field and felt "... broken in body, soul and spirit" (4)--and yet nonetheless proved resilient and managed to educate himself, and even, eventually, to become a scholar.
Frederick Douglass: A Light in Darkness by Tyshawn Bailey and Calil Yarbrough
Connections to Middle and High School
This lesson plan is designed to empower students to learn how to learn and provide their own light in darkness.
Students will analyze the journey of Frederick Douglass from being a slave in the U.S. to becoming a scholar.
National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) Standards