Lessons from a 16-Year-Old's Journal

Photo by  Clark Young  on  Unsplash

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

I've been reading the journal of Charlotte Forten, a 19th century African American activist, poet, and teacher, and it's been convicting and humbling in all sorts of ways. 

First, I've never been able to keep a journal consistently, and it's because I read things like 16-year-old Charlotte's writing and am embarrassed to even look back on my own journaling. This girl could write.

But second, and far more importantly, I'm learning more about the agony felt by African Americans during slavery, and still today. There are echoes of her 164-year-old writing in things being written today, a sign that the battle still rages in the hearts of my brothers and sisters. 

The journal begins as Charlotte is attending a school in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the first black student at the Salem Normal School. As the granddaughter and daughter of members in the abolitionist movement, she is accustomed to hearing accounts of brutality and harsh treatment of slaves in 1854. Her fellow students, however, are from a different world.

The day after she starts her journal, the entry tells news of a runaway slave who has been captured and awaits trial. The African American community in Boston and surrounding areas waits in trepidation for the trial, only to be devastated when the man is convicted and returned to a treatment of unimaginable harshness. 

In the aftermath, Charlotte laments the lack of empathy and understanding from others, especially pastors. She recognizes that her fellow students don't see why she feels this pain so deeply. And as she listens to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a Christian who believed in non-resistance, or peaceful protest, she writes, “his is indeed the very highest Christian spirit, to which I cannot hope to reach, however, for I believe in ‘resistance to tyrants,’ and would fight for liberty until death.”

The most striking part of what I've read thus far deals with this inner turmoil of seeking justice while struggling to love her enemies. I offer it without commentary because it speaks for itself. But I realized in reading it that this is not unique to a teenage girl living in the mid-1800s; it's an emotion and struggle felt by many today in the face of oppression and suffering, and only Christ's love is sufficient for our need:

I have been thinking lately very much about death,—that strange, mysterious, awful reality, that is constantly around and among us, that power which takes away from us so many of those whom we love and honor, or those who have persecuted and oppressed us, our bitter enemies whom we vainly endeavor not to hate. Oh! I long to be good, to be able to meet death calmly and fearlessly, strong in faith and holiness. But this I know can only be through One who died for us, through the pure and perfect love of Him, who was all holiness and love. But how can I hope to be worthy of His love while I still cherish this feeling towards my enemies, this unforgiving spirit? This is a question which I ask myself very often. Other things in comparison with this seem easy to overcome. But hatred of oppression seems to me so blended with hatred of the oppressor I cannot separate them. I feel that no other injury could be so hard to bear, so very hard to forgive, as that inflicted by cruel oppression and prejudice. How can I be a Christian when so many in common with myself, for no crime suffer so cruelly, so unjustly? It seems in vain to try, even to hope. And yet I still long to resemble Him in the last degree, for I know that it must be so ere I can accomplish anything that is really good and useful in life. 
Charlotte Forten, later in life. 

Charlotte Forten, later in life.