Over the past few semesters, librarian Liz Chase has worked closely with Professor Todd Gernes’s course, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” This course, Gernes notes, “uses the life of Frederick Douglass as a basis and lens for understanding 19th-century American history and culture. Douglass’ heroic journey from slavery to freedom … reveals a nation riven by race, region, economy and even differing conceptions of justice and morality.” The course also asks students to think about what it means to “do history,” and to question whose histories dominate our national narratives. We asked student Amanda Phillips ’18, to share her perspective on the course for Black History Month.
Whose History: A First Hand Look into the Past by Amanda Phillips ‘18
In Professor Gernes’s class, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” students get a first-hand look into 19th century America, specifically the lives of slaves. The cornerstone history class allows students the opportunity to grow as historical thinkers by reading primary sources in the forms of autobiographies and contemporary news and documents, alongside helpful secondary sources.
We have learned at this point in the course that history is the piecing together of facts and stories that fit together to complete the puzzle of what actually occurred in the past. An example of this piecing together is the life of Frederick Douglass, whom the class is titled after. Douglass’s life spanned almost the entire 19th century (1818-1895), and by studying the lives of his contemporaries we are able to get a more wholesome view of the times.
In the context of this course, it is especially difficult to ascertain the truth about what happened to slaves in 19th century America. This is due in part to the vast illiteracy of slaves and to masters intentionally keeping slaves ignorant. Only studying Douglass’s life would provide us with a small piece of slavery in America, and by looking only at Douglass’s autobiographies we would be ignorant of the many people that helped him along the way. Douglass’s portrayal of himself in his autobiographies depicts him as a self-made man, whereas analysis of his biographies reveal that he could not have accomplished what he had without the help of others – his wife, for example.
We learn from this that there is bias in all that we read from the past. In order to create an accurate picture of the past, we must take the source into consideration when reading primary sources about slavery, as well as the publication date and social climate of the time in which any other secondary source on the topic of slavery was published. What is interesting about “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” is that it allows us students to come to our own conclusions about the past while taking these points into consideration.