Many authors have used racism as an important theme in American literature. Many books, poems and other literary works have attempted to portray racism in different ways. However, narratives based on personal experience seem to be one of the best ways of portraying the challenges that being black creates for Americans.
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The books “Dreams from my father” by Barack Obama and Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” provide some of the best examples of using personal narratives to portray the evils of racism. Although written at different historical times, they portray the challenges created by virtue of being a black person in the US.
What challenges did racism have in the social and career lives of Obama and Douglass?
Challenges in early life
From the two narratives, it is evident that both authors were able to overcome racism and its challenges to become famous people, although at different times and in different ways. On his part, Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Bailey in 1818 as a slave child in Maryland. He worked as a slave in several farms in Maryland.
He mainly received self-education through his contacts with some educated and freed blacks before escaping to New York and eventually settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Eventually, he became a popular anti-slavery and human rights activist. He used his literary skills and public speaking to mobilise people against the evil.
On his part, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Ann Dunham of Kansas and Barack Obama Sr., a PhD student from Kenya. In his narrative, Obama portrays his first-hand experience with racism as he struggled to fit in an American society, access education, establish a law and political career to become the first African-American president of the US (Atwater 126).
According to Douglass, beatings, physical torture and other cruel practices were typical of slavery during his childhood. In fact, he says that this was “…a common custom in the farms…” (Douglas 942).
For instance, as a child, he wondered why his aunt was beaten mercilessly for “falling in love”. On the other hand, Obama did not face such challenges, but bullying in school and neighbourhood, especially by white children and neighbours, was common.
According to the two narratives, the challenge of being black comes early in life. During his childhood, Frederick Douglas remained enslaved in the farms. While white children were in good schools, Douglass and other black children had to work on the farms. The white farmers took the advantage opportunity of making it hard for slave children to access education.
This made the blacks more and more ignorant. White children would be sent to the best schools to improve their future careers. According to the narrative, it was a custom for the white farmers to keep their slaves ignorant in order to perpetuate slavery. Douglas quotes Master Hugh “… education can spoil the ‘best nigger’ (slave) in the world…” (Douglass 46).
As a child, Douglas did not receive the right education. Instead, he had to educate himself. This is comparably different from the case of Barack Obama. During Douglass’s era, slavery had not been abolished. In addition, education was yet to be made compulsory. Education was for the whites, wealthy people and freed blacks.
On the other hand, Obama did not receive such challenges because education was a basic right during his childhood and slavery had long been abolished. Nevertheless, Obama’s narrative shows some evidence of similarly with Douglass’s experience.
For instance, Obama lived among the blacks as a child, attending schools that were mainly for blacks and poor people. As such, the education was not as good as the one offered to the children of the whites and wealthy people (Atwater 124).
Parenting and identity
Challenges in parenting and search for personal identity also emerge as some major themes in the two books. For instance, Douglass did not know his father, but it was rumoured that he was the son of his white master. According to Douglass, slave children hardly knew their origins, dates of birth and relatives because they were normally separated from their relatives early in life.
For instance, the white farmer separated the child (Douglass) from the mother probably to avoid any disclosure of the fact that Douglass was his biological child. Like other black slaves, Douglass did not know his origins, the exact date of birth or his parents.
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This was a form of psychological challenge to the black communities. On the other hand, Obama experienced psychological torture trying to know his father. He was separated from his father after the parents divorced and the father returned to his native Kenya. His mother had little knowledge of his father’s origins and relatives, yet the boy wanted to know his real identity.
Challenges in adulthood and career development
In their youth and adult lives, both Obama and Frederick provide adequate evidence of the challenges that their skin colour created. In addition, they describe the limitations that racism had on career development. For instance, the lack of proper education in childhood, the quest for self-education and the need to escape from the farms were major challenges in Douglass’s life.
Although Douglass had the chance to escape from the farm, he had to wait for years because education was an important tool for the escaping slaves (Miller 54). The process of self-education was obviously long, which delayed his escape and made him a slave for a long time. Even after planning to escape, Douglass had to meet strict terms and conditions for leaving the farm.
For instance, he says that he had to get only two dollars per week, work with “calking tools” and miss a number of other privileges. In addition, even after leaving the farm, he had to live like a fugitive slave. To buy his freedom, Douglass had to make endearing friendships, tour Europe and risk his life as an organizer of anti-slavery movements (Miller 73).
On his part, Barack Obama faced problems as he sought to establish his career as a lawyer, educator and politician. First, his life as a youth and early adult was almost destroyed by the “…party lifestyle of drugs and alcohol…” (Obama 93).
According to his narrative, most victims of drugs, alcohol and tobacco were the blacks and poor youths who were mainly unemployed, barely educated and hopeless (Obama 94). Like Douglas, getting education did not mean that Obama was free from the challenges of racism. For example, Obama had to face the negative perception of a black leader in his campaigns for election as the president of Harvard law review.
From this analysis, it is evident that racism has been portrayed as the main theme in the two books. Douglass’s story revolves around his life from slavery in Maryland to a pioneer activist, author and political leader. Similarly, Obama’s book shows his experience with racism as he struggles to fit in a society that has little regards for the blacks.
Atwater, Deborah F. “Senator Barack Obama: The Rhetoric of Hope and the American Dream.” Journal of Black Studies 38.2 (2007): 121-29.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Crown Publishing Inc, 1990. Print.
Miller, James A. “Frederick Douglass 1818-1895” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1998. Print
Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father. New York: Random House, 2004. Print