My Bondage, My Freedom: Bringing Out the Historian in Chicagoans

October 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm Leave a comment

As an avid historian, I am often confused by people who read about history and only memorize dates and names without analyzing it. History is a living thing, linking what’s happening now to what has happened in our past. The perfect example of this connection between past and present is represented by a book now included in the rare book collection of Chicago State University.

Last year, I donated an original 1855 first edition of Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage, My Freedom to the Chicago State University from my collection of Civil War-era documents and Americana. I am fascinated by this intense episode of American history and how it shaped the world.

However, I did not begin my collection with the intention of keeping rare books for my own research. Rather, I want to preserve and make history available to everyone, as it was intended, without alteration or editing, and let the readers decide for themselves the meaning and context of these true and accurate historical documents.

The introduction to My Bondage, My Freedom, written by James McCune Smith, an African-American physician, abolitionist, and friend of Frederick Douglass, was published with the work in 1855, but John Stauffer’s foreword, included in more current editions, is written in the past tense. This separates readers from the events, making the history feel finished. But Frederick Douglass’ story is not over. The activism he helped put in motion 158 years ago is still playing out, and we are a part of it.

To Chicago State University, a university with a population that is almost 78% African-American, Douglass’ book is much more than an artifact from the past. The oppression of certain classes, the racism, the lack of available education, and the demand for change that Douglass experienced in America are not gone. It has been 158 years since My Bondage, My Freedom was published, and Americans, Chicagoans in particular, are still experiencing similar problems differently.

As a Harvard University professor of English and American Literature and African American Studies, Chair of the History of American Civilization program at Harvard and a leading authority on antislavery, social protest movements and interracial friendship, Stauffer’s interpretation is undoubtedly insightful; however, it may unintentionally limit another reader’s willingness to further analyze Douglass’ work.

Stauffer tells us, “My Bondage, My Freedom represents Douglass’ declaration of black independence from slavery and racism. It announces the presence of a confident black intellectual who shapes his black aesthetic, and insists on having his book read alongside all literature.”

I agree with Stauffer’s analysis, but now I challenge everyone to think further. Read My Bondage, My Freedom. See the 1855 version at Chicago State University. Look at the documents on www.ourblackheritage.com, a free online resource containing visuals of original historical documents. Read Stauffer’s foreword—after. What does it mean to you right now? What does it mean to Americans? To Chicago? What can we learn?

I am hoping the donation has sparked an interest in history in a way that not all textbooks and museums can. I have other books and documents from the time period, which I plan to give away over the next ten years, making unaltered history more widely available, and hopefully creating more active historians across the country because history can repeat itself if we are not careful.

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Entry filed under: African American Families. Tags: , , , , .

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