Opinion: Will Anti-CRT Laws Censor the Work of Frederick Douglass?

Walter Rhein

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I find it concerning how critical race theory is under attack in many states. Critical race theory, or CRT, is a respected academic theory. However, anti-CRT legislation is often a response to the hysterical response of individuals who don’t know what the theory entails.

The problem is that good teachers end up facing persecution for teaching black history that doesn’t have anything to do with critical race theory. It’s a problem when our government agencies ruthlessly enforce ambiguous laws based on false accusations.

One of the writers whose work might be targeted for censorship is abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass is a remarkable figure who arose from slavery to become one of the most significant writers in American history.

Slave narratives precious documents because they cut through the propaganda of slavery apologists and depict the true horrors of the age. Too often, children in public schools are subjected to sanitized versions of history that present slave owners as “generous,” or “decent.”

The truth can be seen in books such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. There are passages in these books that depict the unspeakable cruelty which is the natural consequence of systems of authoritarianism such as slavery.

Slave narratives are rare because slaves were deliberately denied the basic human right to literacy. The oppressors feared the consequences of teaching slaves how to read, and punished anyone who did so.

In Douglass’s narrative, he dedicates a chapter to the tactics he used to teach himself how to read. He received a few lessons from his “mistress” until her husband told her that such teaching was forbidden. But Douglass had a brilliant mind, and he devised ways to turn his white oppressors into unwitting teachers.

In reading the work of Douglass, I find myself inspired by the unquenchable strength of the human spirit. Douglass was able to overcome the delusional and abusive belief that some people were entitled to dominion over others.

I see a parallel in the blatant acts of censorship that are part of the trend toward authoritarianism that is sweeping across our country today. Anti-CRT bans are likely to deprive school children of access to the work of Frederick Douglass. Books have been removed from classrooms for trumped-up reasons, even though some politicians defend maintaining statues of racist traitors.

It’s interesting to observe what subjects receive the defense of “freedom of expression.” I find myself doubting the sincerity of anyone who claims we cannot ban swastikas or the Nazi salute even as they issue orders to prevent the instruction of basic black history.

It’s convenient how quickly individuals flip-flop from accusations of “indoctrination” to an insistence that they have a right to “freedom of expression.”

The simple fact is that Frederick Douglass is one of the most important writers of our nation’s history. Even Thomas Jefferson was fearful of the negative impact the institution of slavery would have on our society. As America becomes more authoritarian, might the anti-slavery writings of Thomas Jefferson also be banned from classrooms?

But one thing that becomes apparent in the writing of Frederick Douglass is the essential weakness of the bullies who attempt to own other human beings. Saber rattlers try to operate on intimidation, but they are frauds who do not truly wield the power they pretend to command.

There is an ongoing effort in the United States to indoctrinate children with a sanitized narrative of American history. The nefarious forces behind this effort think they can succeed by banning books and preventing the instruction of certain academic theories that displease them. But this effort is doomed to fail.

Frederick Douglass managed to teach himself to read, in part, to expose the lies of the society that sought to oppress him. Children across our country would benefit from reading his work. For now, it’s available for free online.

We’re much better off when we are honest about the true history of our country. The idea that this history can be censored, or that people can be controlled, has been proven futile by the example of Frederick Douglass and many others.

Any effort to ban or censor the work of Frederick Douglass for any reason can only be interpreted as an effort to indoctrinate children with white supremacy.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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