“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Valentine’s Day isn’t just an excuse to eat chocolates out of a heart-shaped box. For the civic-minded, February 14th* is also a time to honor the life of Frederick Douglass—a well-known abolitionist and a champion of human rights and education.
For English educators in particular, his life’s story is a study in the transformative power of literacy.
As a twelve-year-old boy, Douglass was transformed from a slave into an aspiring human rights activist when he secretly taught himself to read. In fact, his experience with books affected him so profoundly that he would later call education “the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Within a few years, inspired by what he had read,
And that’s precisely why slaves were strictly prohibited from learning to read in the first place. Slave-owners knew that literate people are free people. They won’t be subjugated for long.
You can read more about Douglass’s extraordinary life in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass .
But keep in mind that Douglass is only one of many African-American writers whose words will inspire your class in February and throughout the year. Here are a few other suggestions from among our favorite novels, poems, plays, and nonfiction works.
African-American Poetry, An Anthology: 1773—1927 (from Phyllis Wheatley to Langston Hughes)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois’s legendary treatise
Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel by Zora Neale Hurston
A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry
Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison (recommended for mature classes)
Contemporary Young Adult:
Gifted Hands, the autobiography of Ben Carson
The Color of Water, an autobiographical novel by James McBride
Slam!, a novel by Walter Dean Myers
The Rose that Grew from Concrete, a poetry anthology by Tupac Shakur
*Douglass didn’t know for sure the day, or even the year, of his birth. He adopted February 14th as his birthday because his mother called him her “little Valentine.”