I have no idea how I made it to my mid-fifties before I picked up Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I am left ascribing it to the same oversight in my formal education that denied me Harriet Beecher Stowe and W.E.B DuBois and to a vocational focus that limited my post-graduate reading to the most utilitarian of tomes. Released from the professional-development beartrap, Mr. Douglass beckoned from atop a very tall pile of books, and I took him up.
Douglass’s life would have been painful enough to read had it been but the exceptional tale of a single individual. Knowing throughout – and reminded by Douglass – that his experience of slavery (though not his life post-escape) was archetypal threatens to overwhelm the empathetic reader. Many were the points in the narrative where I had to stop, even step away, to process.
It is indicative of the age that even as I fall into Douglass’s shoes during his story, I hear a voice shouting, “you privileged white-passing old fool! You can never understand what he went through! You can never understand what we went through! How dare you presume to try?
I ignore the voice. There should be no limits to empathy, even if we share nothing in common beyond mere sentience. I will never be Frederick Douglass. But I would be a failure as a human being if I did not do all I could to crawl inside his mind, and come out changed.