Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass + The Listeners

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In his narrative of life in slavery and what led him to escape, Frederick Douglass captured the chief dilemmas that slaves dealt with, including slavery of the mind. Douglass’s slavery in Baltimore and surrounding areas was horrendous, and yet it was, as he admitted, quite tame compared to those experiences that slaves on plantations in the South dealt with.

As I read, I was struck that the main obstacle that Douglass had to overcome was not the freezing weather, the starvation, the humiliations, and the beatings, but rather a broken will. Of course, all of the former abuses directly contributed to the later, but it is his will that allowed him to be himself amidst the horrors of slavery.

Douglass was a strong-willed and intelligent boy as he grew in Baltimore. For example, he tricked the white boys his age to teach him how to read and he secretly worked on learning more. But as a teenager, he found himself reassigned to an overseer in the country who had a reputation for “breaking in” rebellious slaves. Eventually, Douglass’s spirit was broken too. That was the most heart breaking to me, for the slave masters determined to turn him into something less than human.

Douglass’s story about his broken spirit reminded me of the story of Sethe and the others in Beloved, one of my favorite novels. “You your own self,” Sethe is told. And that is what I kept thinking as Douglass told his story. He was his own self, and he was strong. He had to rediscover his will to be an individual after that master “broke” him, just as Sethe ultimately had to discover herself in Beloved. As is evidence by the existence of this narrative, Douglass eventually escaped slavery and was able to tell his story, further evidence that he was able to rediscover his will to be an individual.

Douglass’s story was written just ten years after his ultimate escape from slavery, when he was 27 or 28, and that also fascinates me. It was the 1840s, and slavery was a long way from being ended. As an escaped slave, evidence of his whereabouts could bring slave catchers, and many Northern states were required to return the slaves. Yet, he does not fear to name many names. It is clear that he has a confidence in himself. He later was able to earn enough money, lecturing in Europe, to legally buy his freedom. That is a story of success and self-confidence.

As I read this account of a slave in a border state, a slave with a difficult and tragic life and yet one that was not “that bad,” I was repeatedly reminded of a picture book I read a few weeks ago. I wrote up a blurb about it and had intended to post it with other picture books about the subject in a few more weeks. My original impression of The Listeners by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Mike Benny, was as follows:

In a beautifully illustrated large book, we learn the story of three little slave children, whose job it is to listen near the plantation house every night and report back to their parents. It’s a slave story, but it has an element of hope to it. The illustrations are gorgeous. I’ve seen some comments suggesting that it is too light-hearted a look at slavery: truly this is not like the slavery I’ve read about before, and I can accept those comments. But it still is a touching and beautiful picture book, and I can see it as a good introduction to the subject for young children.

After reading Douglass’s book, I am now confused about what I think about The Listeners. I think it gives an incorrect view of slavery. I no longer have it to reread (I had to return it to the library), but I do remember a scene where the children are dancing with their parents. They delight in those evenings.

On the contrary, Frederick Douglass said:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. … (page 35, emphasis added)

Gloria Whelan, author of The Listeners, is a woman from Detroit, who has written a number of picture books set in rural Michigan, as well as other stories and picture books set in other locales, such as Russia and Japan (see Wikipedia; her author site). I guess I wonder what books she’s read about real life in slavery. Has she read any escaped slave journals and accounts, like this one? Maybe she has; I don’t know. But now I doubt the veracity and the appropriateness of a picture book with slave children laughing and dancing. It gives the wrong impression.

In Douglass’s account, as a child, he received one shirt a year and when it wore out, he went naked. He was always hungry. All the children ate out of a trough, and the quickest ended up eating the most. At night, he had a burlap sack as a blanket. In the rural Maryland winters, his feet would frost over in the night. He was forced to watch women being whipped, and saw a man shot for being slow to respond to the master’s orders.

How does one teach this cruel reality of slavery to children, or do we just gloss over it with pretty picture books until they are older?

Do you think it’s appropriate to emphasize, in a picture book, imagined happy moments that some slave children may have had?

I don’t have any answers. As I said above, I’m conflicted.

Reviewed on March 4, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve had Douglass’s ook on my TBR list for ages but have yet to get around to reading it. It sounds like a real education in many ways. As for teaching children about slavery, I think, depending on the age, it is ok to simplify a bit, but I don’t think the horrors should be glossed over or hidden. Nor should it be made to appear that slavery was a happy situation because to me, that implies that it really wasn’t so bad and there is nothing to make a fuss about.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Notes on What I’ve Been Reading =-.

  • Personally, I think there is FAR too much glossing over in American education and that we should be more upfront about slavery, imperialism and all the like. I don’t know at what age it should be taught, but when it is taught, it should be balanced.

    I have been reading (for SO LONG) Team of Rivals and it mentions Douglass a few times. He sounds fascinating.
    .-= Aarti´s last post on blog ..With Reverent Hands: The Last Temptation of Christ =-.

  • I was wondering if I’d somehow missed your review of Douglass when I saw it in your monthly wrap-up post! I read this one in January, and I was just blown away by it.

    That picture book sounds inappropriate to me, especially since it’s *emphasis* is on the ‘happy moments’ of slavery…like Aarti, I think there’s already a tendency in the education system (of ANY country) to gloss over the messy bits of history, and it’s one we have to be vigilant against. Especially since teachers are often constraint in their curricula, parents need to be sure to make sure their kids see other sides. But for very young children…I don’t know. I’m tempted to say not discussing slavery at all is better than making it sound kind of nice. I mean, moving the context, I can’t imagine a picture book set in a concentration camp during the Holocaust that was about the ‘happy moments’ of the children there. So it seems more preferable to wait until children are old enough to know that bad things happened, and to learn about it in that context, than to make their first introduction downplay the evil.

    Of course, that’s my opinion as a non-parent, still in training for teacherhood! 😉
    .-= Eva´s last post on blog ..Central Asia: the Making of a Booklist =-.

  • To answer your very valid questions I did read many books on the history of slavery including the work of Frederick Douglass. I wish you had the book before you for the book tells of how the children do indeed eat out of a trough and how they have to do with a single garment. The singing is done at their church. The children in the book face the selling away of one of their fathers. THE LISTENERS is meant to show how little power the slaves had and how therefore it was necessary for even the little children to struggle to survive. Imagining ourselves into the lives of others is not unique to authors. It is something we all do every day. Without our identification with other people, without being able to imagine how others feel, there would be no compassion. That imagining ourselves into the lives of another is what makes life tolerable and makes us all human.

  • I need to read Frederick Douglass’ book soon! It’s definitely on my list of classics to get to this year.

    As for The Listeners, I agree with you and Eva and Aarti. Even if the intent was not to overemphasize the positive moments in the life of a slave, it’s good to be extra careful just because that tendency DOES exist.
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery =-.

  • Regarding the Listeners, you must read the book to understand the context. Until then, do not comment on that which you do not know. It might make you appear silly and unfounded.

  • Stefanie, I highly recommend Douglass’s Narrative. It’s short but memorable!

    Aarti, I’m completely with you on how things are bit too glossed over. I also don’t know what age it would be okay to read about. I’ll have to watch my son mature. And I have Team of Rivals in my TBR! I’m glad you enjoy it, even if it does take forever to read (as I’d expect! It’s huge!)

    EvaI wouldn’t say it focused only on the “happy” moments (see author’s comment), but it did have a hopeful feel to it — it ended with the election of Abraham Lincoln and their hope that things will be better. It was just hopeful. As I say above, I’m not sure what age I’d introduce the issues to my son. Maybe I’ll wait until he can read Frederick Douglass? It’s not that advanced in writing style!

    Gloria, thanks for visiting! I appreciate your clarifications — I really should have found the book again before writing, as the eating from a trough and one shirt scenes didn’t stand out in my memory at all. Question: did you base the listening under the window on a real story? That was very interesting to me, as I’d never heard of it before.

    Nymeth, Douglass was quite readable and short, I highly recommend it. As is evident by the comments and my thoughts, I’m still torn about the picture book. Not sure how appropriate slavery in general is for picture books, since it’s meant to be brutal and honest and a painful part of history!

    Jenny, this was my first! Have you read My Bondage and Freedom too?

    Charles, if you read my post, you’d know that I did read the picture book, I just didn’t have it in front of me when I was reflecting on it. 🙂

  • Rebecca, Not a specific inscident, but from archives which tell how the children of slaves were used. I can’t imagine anything more terrifying then hearing your mother or father might suddenly be sent away. That was included in the book as were many of the kinds of miserable situations described by Douglas, but even in the most unhappy of lives there are moments of happiness and hope or how would we all survive? Gloria

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