In the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, historian David W. Blight sets out the work we still face today, more than 200 years after the birth of this former slave, social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, ambassador, and statesman who changed his world and became one of the most famous, influential, and important individuals of the 19th century.
As he tries to balance the narrative of Douglass’s life with “analyses of his evolving mind,” Blight writes of how he returns to that narrative, because…
“It is Douglass’s story, though, that lasts and gives and instructs. There is no greater voice of America’s terrible transformation from slavery to freedom than Douglass’s. For all who wish to escape from outward or inward captivity, they would do well to feel the pulses of this life, and to read the words of this voice. And then go act in the world.”
I recently finished reading this monumental 2018 biography, the first on Douglass in a quarter century, and I came away humbled, enlightened, and inspired. By Douglass’s life and work, certainly. But also by Blight’s efforts to capture, in very human form, the essence of his most extraordinary subject.
Much of Douglass’s early life is well-known, in part because he wrote three different autobiographies before he died in 1895. His escape from slavery in Baltimore, his early work with abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, his role in support of women’s suffrage, his travels across the country as he honed his amazing oratorical skills, his later break with Garrison, and his support for the Republican party and, eventually, Abraham Lincoln are pieces of the story many know, at least at the superficial level. When Douglass came to the White House on the evening of March 4, 1865, and is pulled aside from a crowded reception into a private conversation, he is able to tell Lincoln that his second inaugural address was “a sacred effort,” forever cementing his connection with The Great Emancipator in history.
Douglass, as much as anyone in his time, made the case that “a society that sanctioned cold-blooded murder and fostered homicidal madness as necessary steps to social order could only be called by its names — piracy and tyranny.” His memories and story gave him the voice and power of authenticity that few could match.
Blight goes into great detail throughout this 764-page work, so even those who know the Douglass story and perhaps see him through an iconic lens learn a great deal about his humanity, his character, his flaws, and the issues that drove the man toward greatness every day of his life. On a personal note, I was delighted to find a half-page detailed description of a visit Douglass made to Staunton, Virginia, my Shenandoah Valley home for 15 years, in 1879. There he gave his famous “Self-Made Man” lecture to a church full of listeners who include some 200 white citizens and the members of the City Council. These small vignettes and attention to detail make Blight’s work come alive.
I found in reading Blight’s book that I knew much less about Douglass and his work during Reconstruction and the period that followed “when white people made peace with each other” and African Americans slid into new depths of poverty and racism with Jim Crow laws as a result. Douglass spoke a great deal about history and memory during this period. For instance, he was appalled by the veneration of Robert E. Lee following his death, and the sentiment that he had “died of a broken heart.” Douglass, always quick to make his point, said simply that Lee “was a traitor and can be nothing else.”
Those words about escaping our own captivity stayed with me through the entire work. I heard someone say recently that a prophet is someone who sees what is happening in his or her day and calls for a change in how we do things if we wish to avoid the future consequences of those actions. Blight is not afraid to bring Douglass’s prophetic voice into today’s world as he analyzes his words and evolving mind. As he was drawing closer to death in 1893 and 1894, Douglass found his old voice and, as Blight phrases it, “preached an old creed.”
“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.”
And so the question from the prophet remains today: are we willing to change in order to live up to the ideals of the constitution? We all have to face it on both a personal and community level. Douglass is a 19th century prophet, but like most great prophets, his words still ring true in the 21st century, if we’ll only listen.
More to come…