KOKOMO, Ind. — What can a 19th century activist teach us about 21st century social issues?
Plenty, according to one Indiana University Kokomo administrator and professor.
Mark Canada, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, talked about how the writings of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who published and advocated extensively for human rights 170 years ago, can inform thinking on making a better, more inclusive, American society today, in an IU Lifelong Learning program for the IU Alumni Association.
“I think we could learn a lot from the lessons he was teaching as a writer, as a journalist, and as a speaker, about respect and equality and inclusion,” said Canada, who has taught Douglass’s writings as a professor of English.
“He was ahead of his time,” Canada continued. “Many people today are interested in what Douglass had to say about race relations, and about respect for diversity. In addition to being an abolitionist, he had a great enthusiasm and passion for reform. He spent many years on the lecture circuit, and when he started his first newspaper in 1847, he emphasized women’s rights.
“It was an era of reform, and Douglass was right at the center of it. That, I think, is a universal and timeless theme that he represents ‑the drive to make our society better,” Canada said.
Douglass also spoke in favor of free public education, and against punishment by flogging in the U.S. Navy, among the many causes he advocated for in the 1840s and 1850s, when the United States was less than 100 years old, and its citizens were still, on some level, trying to figure out what kind of society they wanted.
So what would Douglass think about today’s society, as it grapples with racism? That’s a tough question, Canada said. He thinks Douglass would recognize the progress that has been made — there are now laws that prohibit the kinds of oppression and atrocities common when he was speaking and writing for abolition.
“On the other hand, I suspect Douglass would be deeply discouraged to learn that we still have to make the case that ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Canada said. “Such things are, on their face, wrong and ought not need to be topics of argument. Still, I think he would have eagerly added his voice to those calling for diversity, equality, and inclusion. Reform was in his blood, and he was a masterful activist.”
To prepare for the presentation, Canada visited Baltimore and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, taking a driving tour of sites significant to Douglass’s life, along with reviewing his writings.
“It was meaningful to me to be in those places, to see where he had lived, and a general idea of where he was born,” he said, adding that the remote areas of the Eastern Shore are still farmland, like it was during the activist’s time.
“You can still get a good sense of what Douglass’s world looked like then,” he said.
For those interested in learning more about Douglass and the abolitionist movement, Canada recommends his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, or his later My Bondage and My Freedom, which repeats parts of the first book but adds more material about his life after escaping slavery.
He also recommended the Pulitzer Prize-winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and the 2013 documentary American Experience: The Abolitionists for additional insight.
His presentation was part of IU Lifelong Learning, which offers dozens of high-quality courses taught by IU’s world class faculty and other experts. The program has been offered virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information go to IU Alumni Lifelong Learning.