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Frederick Douglass Artfully Remembered

by Gerald McCarthy

A unique art collaboration between students at St. Thomas Aquinas College and the Blue Rock School celebrates the life of author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The public is invited to an opening for this exhibition at 5:30p on Friday, June 28 at Maria Luisa Boutique.

ML_FrederickDouglas1of2As part of a project to study and research Home and Homecoming in African American Writers, I wanted to engage college students, many of whom may become teachers, with middle school students.  My idea was to have both groups read Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography and create collaborative art that reflected what they felt in a very sensory way about Douglass’ life, literacy and freedom— especially in respect to having a home. At the core of this inquiry is my own interest in what both groups collectively would come to understand about slavery and its enduring impact on American history.  At the core of this inquiry is my own interest in what both groups collectively would come to understand about slavery and its enduring impact on American history.

The six framed collaborative art pieces were inspired by reading Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. This text was read by both students in the 7th and 8th grades at Blue Rock School and students enrolled in my course on African American Writers at St. Thomas Aquinas College during the Spring 2013 term. In addition, students in the college class read Douglass’ second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom.


[pullquote align=”right”]This piece shows the two components of Frederick Douglass’ childhood—the happiness he felt with his grandma and the horrors of slave life.  The scene involving his grandma includes music and dancing (we wanted to reflect the importance of slave songs). The whipping component illustrates the incident when Douglass saw his aunt being whipped by their master.  We wanted to show how the warmth of home can bring comfort even in the most horrific of situations.[/pullquote]

As a result of these readings and at the suggestion of artist and art teacher at Blue Rock School, Ms. Ruth Waldman, all the students met for several weeks on Thursday afternoons to share ideas about Frederick Douglass’ life and work.  Ruth Waldman suggested the students use the art of contemporary African American artist Kara Walker as inspiration for a series of silhouettes on Douglass.

The outcome of this reading and collaboration are the six silhouettes and the statements each group of students wrote about what they were trying to represent.

At the core of our collaborative project we have been inspired by Frederick Douglass’ writing—and his resistance.

“From the time I learned how to read, and learned the value of knowledge, it was among the deepest and sincerest wishes of my soul, to assist in the deliverance of my people, not only from the terrible bondage of slavery, but from the more terrible bondage of ignorance and vice.”

The students whose work is on display include middle school students Inanna Greenhill  and Julianne Quinn from Blue Rock School and Yves France Coriolan, Riley Harrington, and Kaitlin Blumberg from St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Gerald McCarthy is a Professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College

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