Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Read. Appropriate. Engage.

Written by: on January 19, 2021

While reading biographies, the foes of presentism, bias, and reductionism lurk ever-present. Meanwhile, the muses of inspiration, understanding, and hope sing within the pages. As we consider the life of someone who is beautifully human, reverence is needed at the highest order. Studying history and its significant figures serve not simply as an understanding of the past but connects us with the present milieus and the future possibilities. Woe to the history teacher whose lead foot is the rote memorization of timelines. Praise be to the creative shepherd who creates something like a hip-hop inspired musical out of a founding father’s biography.  History comes alive, and thus a useful voice for the present. For, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, “If we don’t forget the things of the past, they will serve as guides for the future.”

I commend David Blight’s opening charge to the reader in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Frederick Douglass. He writes, “How Americans react to Douglass’s gaze, indeed how we gaze back at his visage, and more importantly, how we read him, appropriate him, or engage his legacies, informs how we use our past to determine who we are” (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, xiii.) Read. Appropriate. Engage.

How do we read Douglass? Thoughtfully, openly and paradoxically. Is he a spokesperson for the right championing black self-reliance and individualism? Is he a prophet for the left touting multiculturalism? We ask “Whose Douglass?”, which “is a modern question rife with meaning” (xvi). The human life and soul is far more than a pigeon hole will allow room. Reading the complexities of thought and action of a man like Frederick Douglass creates pause when viewing (and judging) other’s beautifully human inconsistencies.

How do we appropriate Douglass? Carefully and with nuance. Upon review of Douglass’s life, James Baldwin wrote, “Frederick Douglass was first of all a man – honest within the limitations of his character and his time, quite frequently misguided, sometimes pompous, gifted but not always a hero, and no saint at all” (xv). A reductionist view of Douglass (or anyone for that matter), would be irresponsible and misleading.

How do we engage Douglass’s legacies? Boldly and without a whisper, for “Douglass was no whisperer” (97). Determining who I am and how I sing in harmony with Douglass’s orations stand as guiding concerns as I begin engagement with this image-bearer.

The role of a global leader is to dream of alternative future realities by asking “What if?” and rallying towards that dream. These dreams, however, must be rooted in the past, informed by history, and inspired by leaders who have gone before us. Reading, appropriating, and engaging Douglass’s legacies extend his life, his voice, and his prophecies to the present and into the future.


David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).

About the Author

Shawn Cramer

8 responses to “Read. Appropriate. Engage.”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    As you read and write, I’ll be interested to discover your take on Frederick Douglass, the human. On the front end of this journey, is there a hunch you’re hoping to test? A practice you’re hoping to glean? A journey you’re hoping to take?

    • Shawn Cramer says:

      Jer, thanks for this push. Darcy’s intentional questions in her post also spurred me in the same vein of thinking. Perhaps one hunch is that seemingly small, but exceptionally empowering moments can truly make a difference.

  2. Dylan Branson says:

    “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” – Robert Jordan

    This came to my mind in reflection to each of us as we begin to engage the biographies we’ve chosen. How will we remember history or how will history remember these figures? The beauty of these biographies is that it gives us a narrative line that we can trace throughout their life to come to an understanding of where we are today. Excited to see where Douglass’s journey leads you and where, in turn, you lead us.

  3. John McLarty says:

    I’m also interested in what you’ll pull from Douglass’ life and legacy. In light of what Dr. Harris brought to us earlier this week about the black experience and the white litmus test, do you think part of Douglass’ method was intentionally trying to adapt in different environments in order to give voice and influence?

    • Shawn Cramer says:

      Great thought! I didn’t make that connection, John. Let me answer that as the weeks progress. In my place in the reading, Douglass is finding his voice, but I will now have a keen eye out for his adaptations in light of the audience and other litmus tests he might need to pass.

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    The beauty of reading these biographies is that we get a picture of the humanity of an individual. That is especially helpful when the individual has been placed upon a platform of sort, propped up for their goodness or evil. I love how you highlighted the importance of noticing nuance. That is the word God continued to bring to my mind over the past few months regarding racial reconciliation, and the one I am carrying into this new year. Few things are black and white, this or that- especially regarding those who have gone before us. I look forward to seeing what surprises are in store for each of us as we embark upon this journey of exploration together.

  5. Greg Reich says:

    I will be interested as you unfold your learnings over the next several weeks. One of the first thing I am noticing as I read my biography on John Wooden is how much I miss read his life through reading his leadership books first. I think we often view an individual through the tainted lens of history and through their personal writings. We seldom see the broken human side of an individual in its rawest form as perceived by those around that individual. It is an interesting process to see people we see to be great leaders through the frailty of their humanity. We often don’t want to be confronted with their flaws as people. But part of who we are is our brokenness. How will the frailties and flaws of Frederick Douglas help mold your own leadership journey?

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    To be ‘beautifully human’, just sitting with that.

    So interesting, Shawn! I’m looking forward to hearing more about the man, the very beautifully human-man, Frederick Douglass.

    I wonder, how normal leaders are? Yet, there’s a certain something that gives them credibility, nurtures homage, regardless of mistakes. A consistency of character?

    Some don’t consider ones who I view as heroes, ones who I revere as beautifully human, with as much interest or care. Some may even detest ones who’ve inspired me. This is perplexing and confusing and true.

    ‘Whatever floats your boat!’ As my buddy Chay would often say. Simple as that?

    I’m looking forward to enjoying the story of Frederick Douglass over the next few weeks 🙂 will consider appropriation and engagement as you do.

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