In 1856, the bold prophetess Sojourner Truth (1797-1893) addressed the Friends of Human Progress Association in Michigan. Since many states had passed anti-literacy laws to prevent teaching slaves to read or write out of fears of insurrection, Truth was illiterate, yet her speech was recorded by the secretary of the Association and published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. The following is a powerful excerpt:
I believe in Jesus, and I was forty years a slave but I did not know how dear to me was my posterity. I was so beclouded and crushed. But how good and wise God is, for if the slaves knowed what their true condition was, it would be more than the mind could bear. While the race is sold of all their rights—what is there on God’s footstool to bring them up? Has not God given to all his creatures the same rights?
Some years ago there appeared to me a form . . . Then I learned that I was a human being. We had been taught that we was a species of monkey, baboon or 'rang-o-tang, and we believed it—we'd never seen any of these animals. But I believe in the next world. When we gets up yonder, we shall have all of them rights 'stored to us again—all that love what I've lost—all going to be 'stored to me again. Oh! How good God is.
My mother said when we were sold, we must ask God to make our masters good, and I asked who He was. She told me, He sit up in the sky. When I was sold, I had a severe, hard master, and I was tied up in the barn and whipped. Oh! Till the blood run down the floor and I asked God, why don’t you come and relieve me—if I was you and you’se tied up so, I’d do it for you.
Truth echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12 (ESV): “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Though Truth reminds us that we are free in Christ, her people were enslaved and denied humanity. Today, many of our Black brothers and sisters continue to be wounded by the inequality, discrimination, and oppression of racism. While Milton’s Satan, quoted by Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” said, “Never can true reconcilement grow / Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep,” it is my prayer that it’s not too late, that compassion and justice can and will prevail to reconcile American citizens.
As a Lutheran educator, I have written this article to share how I use literature as a tool for empathy cultivation and racial justice in my high school American literature course, where we read works like Truth’s. At the end, I include texts, guiding questions, and resources for teachers who want to work toward racial justice in their classrooms.
In my English courses, I hope that my students will grow as capable readers and writers, of course, yet my goal extends beyond literacy: I want to soften my students’ hearts and then strengthen them for the pursuit of justice. Since 2013, my own heart and mind have been stretched while teaching an inclusive American literature course at Orange Lutheran High School.
When I arrived, our department chair asked the course team to restructure the curriculum to follow a chronological study of works from various genres and periods to help students understand the major themes of American literature. What emerged was a diverse study of literature from the open canon—that is, an authoritative list of works that have been given official status alongside historically marginalized voices that have wrongly been cast aside as insignificant.
In the first semester, we study the voices of those who have fought for their inclusion in what Washington called “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People” and what Hamilton called a “new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We travel from the Native tribes to the antebellum South, asking, “What themes emerge about the pursuit of freedom, justice, and equality in America?” That is, in fact, our final essay question. Each day, we read and annotate together in class, facing our hard history and upholding the worth and dignity of each human being—from Native Americans stereotyped as heathens and relegated to reservations, to Africans pulled from their continent and sold into chattel slavery, to women denied suffrage and higher education.
My empathy also extends to educators who may feel trepidation about discussing issues of racial justice in their classroom. As a white woman, I grew up in predominantly white spaces and attended predominantly white schools that centered the white experience. In my high school American literature course in 2005, I do not recall studying any non-white authors.
Beyond my personal experience, I know that many others have limited knowledge of extent of racial injustice in our country: the Southern Poverty Law Center (2017) analyzed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks and surveyed a cross-section of 1,700 social studies teachers and their students, concluding that American schools have failed to teach their hard history:
Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery, educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it, textbooks do not have enough material about it, and – as a result – students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America. (n.p.)
History is the lens through which we view and understand each text. For example, discussion of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun brings conversations about redlining and its continued effects on disparities in education, wealth, and access to healthy food. On her final reflection this spring, one of my students wrote: “Rather than thinking about literature as just another subject I have to take, or another part of English, I think about it as a chance to learn more about our culture and understanding how far society has come through stories.”
Of course, we still have work to do, and Church, it’s time.