The poem Frederick Douglass: 1817-1895 was written when the civil rights movement was active in America.  Does this info affect your reading of it?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that the context of the poem's writing has to filter into how the poem is read and understood.  It is no accident that in the midst of the struggle for Civil Rights, Hughes selects a topic that is meant to inspire and galvanize individuals into action.  The mere mention of Douglass' narrative convinces individuals to fight for equality, in recognition of the brutality and pain that Douglass had to endure.  His fight is one that is mirrored in the Civil Rights struggle.  Hughes had to clearly understand that writing a poem about this figure would have social and political implications for the present tense.  Additionally, the legacy of Douglass is important because it helps the reader understand that the current struggle for Civil Rights is part of a broader narrative of African- Americans.  We see this in Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," in that history and individual predecessors speak to the present and future.  In Hughes' homage to Douglass, there is a distinct call and feel of resistance to it.  Suggesting that African- Americans not "walk with wary foot" and the idea of walking towards "freedom's goal" seems to bring out much in the ideas of the Civil Rights time period.  Finally, I think that there is a clear and distinct tone in the end of the poem which demands that Douglass is not absent, not dead, and not invisible.  This helps to bring to light that the current struggle for Civil Rights is as old as Douglass, nothing new, and must be approaches with the same "fierce urgency," to quote Dr. King, that Douglass took with his struggles.


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