By Dr. Jessie Fields
“I Am Abraham”, are the first written words (he wrote them in the sand) of Abraham Lincoln, who would go on to write some of the most historically resonant speeches and documents of American democracy up to and during the Civil War. For Lincoln, as the son of a poor farmer who had very little formal education, the very act of learning to read and write signified aspiration beyond the circumstances into which he was born.
I have always been intrigued by the role that learning to read and write has played historically. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write.
Frederick Douglass, born a slave, as a child did manage to learn to read and write by giving pieces of bread to poor white children in exchange for their teaching him words. He like Lincoln would go on to become a brilliant writer.
Reading has played a big role in my own life. As a child my mother, who grew up very poor and was not able to finish high school, instructed me never to read fiction. I had to read only what was “true”. As a result in grade school I read biographies of great American presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which were in the school library. I did also joyfully find a book about Harriet Tubman. So I grew up with a tendency to read nonfiction almost exclusively. Even today I rarely read novels.
At first reading the novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn, our current selection for the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club, was difficult for me. I am a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, having long admired his writing and his commitment to stand firm on the Emancipation Proclamation. In the novel Jerome Charyn touches this American icon. Following the urging of Cathy Stewart who advised me to relax and “let go” in reading the novel, I am actually enjoying the book. It is in fact very much about the love affair of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. I also appreciate the effort to convey personal and intimate details of some very momentous events in our shared American story. Enjoy your reading of Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham.