— Abraham Joshua Heschel
IN FEBRUARY 2017, our current president, at a breakfast for his African-American supporters marking the beginning of Black History Month, said: “I am very proud now that we have a museum on the national mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. [...] Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Much was made of the president’s fuzziness about exactly who this Frederick Douglass fellow was/is and whether he was above or below ground. Within hours of Trump’s speech, memes began appearing online showing Frederick Douglass, his great white mane of hair in full fluff, seated in the Oval Office across the desk from Trump, with a caption claiming that he had just been appointed to the National Security Council. Struggling in vain to clarify matters, ex-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained: “I think [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions that [Douglass] has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.” More and more what, exactly? The Atlantic asked, “Does Donald Trump actually know who Frederick Douglass was?”
But Donald Trump is not alone in having a very hazy idea of exactly who Frederick Douglass was. Sure, most sentient Americans know that Douglass no longer walks the earth. Others probably know that he was born into and escaped from slavery, rose to great heights as an abolitionist orator, wrote three autobiographies, and actually knew Abraham Lincoln. Still, he remains for most people a stand-in for 19th-century black anti-slavery — a vague if representative figure who lives in our national historical memory as a black Moses with a notable profile, a silver tongue, and an Afro rivaling Colin Kaepernick’s.
In Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David Blight’s commanding and meticulously researched new biography of Douglass, the author says that history was, for his subject, “both a warning and an inspiration.” So too is Blight’s well-crafted tour de force. In it, he tells the story of an exceptional life — of a child born as property who dedicated his life to defeating American racism and who died an international superstar, his body lying in state at New York’s City Hall, where Grant and Lincoln had lain before him. That’s the inspiration part. The warning comes in the final third of the book, wherein Blight follows Douglass from the triumph of Emancipation to the tragic demise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow and the lynch mob. His narrative reminds us that racism lives on in the national DNA, ever morphing into new and virulent forms.
But, you may ask, do we really need any more reminders, or for that matter another biography of the 19th century’s most famous black American? We do, for several reasons. First, if only because, in David Blight, we have a historian whose elegant, suitably lofty prose is up to the task of describing the life and work of a man who believed deeply in the transformative power of the word. Blight brings a deft hand to his portrait of a prophet who was, after all, human. While many of the contradictions in Douglass’s life were the subject of rumors and half-truths in his own time, Blight explores them fully and tactfully without succumbing to the temptations of historical gossip.
In Prophet of Freedom, Blight allows us to experience both the exuberance and the difficulties of a life acted out on stages. We see Douglass, as a small boy, gathering damp pages from a discarded Bible out of the gutter so he could learn how to read. We are shown the young, proud orator being shunted into filthy, segregated train cars even as he traveled to address throngs of adoring fans. And we are at the Rochester train station to see his wife Anna rush to meet him with a bundle of freshly ironed shirts before returning to her job making shoes, or caring for their five children, while the abolitionist rock star continued on his way. We are with him near the end of his life when he climbed a rocky crag near the Acropolis and lingered there to read St. Paul’s famous “Address to the Athenians,” in which the Apostle declared all people to be the “offspring” of God and that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”
In his public life, Douglass was many things: nomadic abolitionist orator, editor of The North Star newspaper, poet, advocate for women’s rights, advisor to Abraham Lincoln, recruiter of black troops during the Civil War, Republican Party functionary, recorder in the federal Office of Deeds, Marshal of Washington, DC, and consul general of Haiti. Blight also makes us privy to the private man, with his constant money woes, his demanding role as the patriarch of a large and often dysfunctional family, his divided marital/romantic affections, his pride, and his humility. But Blight does more than provide us with a microscopic view of Douglass’s genius and his humanity. By foregrounding the story of one extraordinary man, Blight also delivers the larger story of four of the most dramatic decades in our national history, for which Frederick Douglass provides a stentorian voice-over.
There are a number of problems that Blight inherits with this territory, the first being that Douglass told his own story three times and told it well. There is much to trust in these narratives, and Blight has done a stunning job working with them to create a vibrant collage of a momentous life, commingling Douglass’s own versions of himself with letters, speeches, editorials, anecdotes, newspaper reports, family memoirs, and photographs.
A second problem is the huge lacuna that lies near the center of the story — the voicelessness of the great man’s wife of 44 years, Anna Murray Douglass, a freewoman who helped her husband escape from bondage in Maryland, and followed him North. Her silence is occasioned by her illiteracy, something Douglass apparently did not feel the need to rectify. There are no letters written directly to or from Anna, so we are left to guess what this long-suffering matriarch and certifiable domestic goddess thought about anything, including her husband’s very close relationships with two white women: his “faithful friends” Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing, both of whom were serious intellectuals and both of whom offered Douglass companionship and succor at different points in his life. What else they offered remains undocumented.
Griffiths, a British abolitionist Douglass met in London in the mid-1840s, relocated to Rochester for almost a decade to help him edit and publish the North Star. For much of that time, Griffiths lived at Cedar Hill, the Douglass home. After Griffiths’s return to England, Douglass took up with with Assing, a German freethinker and supporter of abolition and women’s rights. Douglass maintained some kind of intimate relationship with Assing for 28 years. Although Assing lived in Hoboken, she frequently summered at Cedar Hill, residing under Anna’s roof, eating Anna’s meals, enjoying Anna’s well-kept garden, and sleeping in a bed kept fresh by a hostess known for her industrious housekeeping. Here Anna’s silence is voluble. We long to know how she felt. We do know how Assing felt because she openly and often expressed her contempt for Anna and other members of Douglass’s circle. Blight himself, the fairest of biographers, struggles to contain his antagonism toward Assing, who, by his account, was a caustic snob who saved whatever open-heartedness she possessed for Douglass alone.
The third problem Blight has to contend with is the story’s pacing. Darryl Pinckney spoke truth when he said that “hell has more and better details.” After the dramatic horror of Douglass’s enslavement and the action-packed jubilation of his escape to freedom, there is a narrative slackening at the center of the book, during which Douglass boards trains, gives speeches, boards more trains, boards some boats, and gives more speeches.
Frederick Douglass was famous in a very modern way. Blight rises to the challenge of writing the biography of a man who spent much of his energy consciously nurturing and annotating his own story. He is exceptionally sharp in his deconstruction of Douglass’s constant self-creation. The level of celebrity Douglass achieved could not have been accomplished without the 19th century’s explosion of technology — the railroad, the newspaper, the national magazine, the telegraph, and particularly the photograph. Douglass was fascinated by photography and understood how to use it as an instrument for self-promotion. As FDR understood the power of radio, and JFK grasped the importance of TV, Frederick Douglass got what a photograph could mean. Between 1841 and 1894, he sat for 160 photographs — making him one of the most photographed people on the planet — and wrote a number of speeches and essays that discussed the art of photography and its power to influence.
In part, Douglass built his fame upon his own body. The lash marks he bore on his back proved the truth of his tale. It also seems clear that Douglass was aware of his own charismatic beauty. He was tall and cut a fine figure. In photographs, he was mesmerizing. His eyes burned with purpose and his face conveyed a combination of pride and gravitas. He was a sexy man and he knew it. On his travels in the United States and Great Britain, he was often swarmed by women smitten both by his cause and his person. He never traveled without his barbells, a set of which is displayed in the Frederick Douglass Museum in Washington, DC. All of which is to say that, at the very onset of the modern culture of image reproduction, Douglass seized the opportunity to reproduce and transmit his own image. That choice is a modern one, and it made him one of the most recognizable faces of the 19th century.
It is often the case that dead black revolutionaries are allowed a secure place in our historical memory only when their radicalism has been airbrushed. Leeched of their rage, these revolutionaries begin to take on the Jemima-like glow of unthreatening aunts and uncles. High school students are introduced to a pageant of housebroken radical firebrands. My own undergraduate students often perceive Martin Luther King as an amiable pacifist — the “opposite” of Malcolm X. But what is lost in this gentrification of King and others is the truth of their near-suicidal courage. It was a radical act to rally the crowd at the Montgomery church, the night after Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. It was radical to sit in, attempt to enroll in a segregated school, or wade into a public pool as white swimmers fled. And it was life endangering to order a ham salad sandwich at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. The possibility of violent retaliation was implicit in even the most civil of disobediences enacted by black people against entrenched white institutions. Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Medgar Evers — these are not dead saints but radical interrupters of the status quo.
Blight’s chief accomplishment may be the way he exposes the radical nature of much of Douglass’s life and work. He makes us feel not only the power of Douglass’s great intellect but also the exhaustion, perils, and sacrifices he made in order to dare to have a huge public life while being black. “My subject then is American slavery,” Douglass once said. Like Karl Marx, who was both capitalism’s most brilliant analyst and its most incisive critic, Douglass was the slavocracy’s steeliest interpreter and most powerful adversary. Douglass saw slavery as an epic evil battening on the nation, and from pulpits and auditoriums across the world he demanded that it be destroyed.
Slavery aims at absolute sway. […] It would drive out the schoolmaster and install the slave driver, burn the schoolhouse and install the whipping post, prohibit the Holy Bible and establish the bloody slave code, dishonor free labor with its hope of reward, and establish slave labor with its dread of the lash.
Brilliantly weaponizing his own being, Douglass lashed out at the slave power: “Show the enemy no quarter. Annihilation, not restriction, this is the motto to be inscribed upon our banners. Off with his head and his heart will cease to beat forever.” Ever the ironist, Douglass claimed that “[o]ppression can make a wise man mad,” and that his “language was less bitter than [his] experience” — which was an excellent way to tell white audiences that whatever he was saying was merely the tip of a ferocious iceberg.
In a May 1857 address concerning the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, Douglass offered up what Blight calls “a political prayer delivered by a prophet summoning God to the aid of history.” Invoking the promise of the laws of nature and the intervention of a just God, he ended his speech with an open call for violence by reciting lines from his own poem “The Tyrant’s Jubilee.”
The fire thus kindled, may be revived again;
The flames are extinguished, but the embers remain;
One terrible blast may produce an ignition,
Which shall wrap the whole South in wild conflagration.
The pathway of tyrants lies over volcanoes;
The very air they breathe is heavy with sorrows;
Agonizing heart-throbs convulse them while sleeping,
And the wind whispers Death as over them sweeping.
Douglass’s relationship with — and eventual break from — William Lloyd Garrison, the white editor of The Liberator and one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, offers a window onto Douglass’s philosophical radicalism. The two men met in Nantucket in 1841, where Garrison asked him to speak at an anti-slavery rally. Impressed with the young man’s story and his rhetorical skills, he drew the 23-year-old into the abolitionist fold. Under Garrison’s tutelage, Douglass honed both his voice and his increasingly nuanced analysis of the slave power. But, like Malcolm X, whose exceptional charisma and oratorical genius caused him to eclipse the power of Elijah Muhammad, so too did Douglass become the face of abolition within a very few years. And as his confidence and social power grew, he began to chafe at what he saw as Garrison’s condescension, the way the older man often trotted him out as an exotic exhibit.
Over time a complex intellectual rift developed between the two. In this conflict, it was Garrison who demanded that what he saw as a hopelessly flawed Constitution be scrapped. He called for immediate emancipation — an end he planned to achieve through moral suasion. Americans would be convinced of slavery’s evil and abolish it. Douglass regarded this analysis as naïve because it ignored the economics of the slave system. Moreover, Douglass saw the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document,” one that was being violated daily by the very existence of slavery. He wanted to use any means necessary to reconstitute the Constitution so that its promises concerning citizenship would apply to people like him.
In the wake of the Dred Scott decision and his split with Garrison, Douglass increasingly struggled with the question of violence, asking: “Why fight illogical evil with logic?” This helps to explain his close relationship with the radical anti-slavery activist John Brown, about whom he wrote: “My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.” The two men corresponded throughout the 1850s and met frequently. Brown was even a guest at Cedar Hill on a number of occasions. Blight describes a letter from Brown to Douglass as an expression a “biblical rage […] in the voice of an Old Testament prophet chastising the evils of American leaders and their poisoned institutions.” And Douglass wrote that he had never felt “in the ‘presence of a stronger religious influence’ than in the company of John Brown.”
Like Douglass, Brown was adept at repurposing apocalyptic biblical language to his cause. And Douglass, who had always been drawn to the fire of the Hebrew prophets, found in Brown answers to some of the questions with which he had been wrestling. Brown even looked like an ancient prophet, with his wild hair and untamed beard. Both men believed that God could and would enter human affairs if he was sought. And Douglass was tantalized by Brown’s call to violence, his assertion that the laws of white supremacists were in violation of God’s law: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped.” He invoked the lines from Matthew: “Therefore all things, whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” This analysis made violence a viable weapon with which to confront the slavocracy.
However, while Douglass maintained that “power concedes nothing without a demand” and that violent means were likely called for, he also cautioned that these means should only be used if they could prevail. Douglass also saw fanaticism in the way Brown courted death in the service of a great cause, and consequently he distanced himself from Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, despite Brown’s fervent wish that he participate. While Harpers Ferry represented a significant step toward civil war, it was also lethal for its participants, including Brown, whose death made him a martyr for the cause. Because of his association with Brown, the event jeopardized Douglass’s safety, and he fled to Canada in its aftermath.
With Emancipation came freedom but not equality. Black people, including members of Douglass’s own family, were daily threatened by the emergence of an unstructured, genocidal version of American apartheid — Jim Crow. Now the Klan roamed the countryside at will, hiding beneath their pointy-headed sheets and terrorizing black citizens. Lynch mobs enacted their crude justice across the South, and the votes of black Americans were compromised by poll taxes, poll tests, or worse. Douglass’s prayers had not been fully answered.
Blight gives us a nuanced reading of Douglass’s final act — the years between the triumph of Emancipation and his death in 1894. While still committed to radical activism, Douglass’s postbellum economic analysis concerning black Americans fell squarely on the side of private property — getting it and keeping it. These same years saw him delivering versions of his “Self-Made Man” speech, extolling black folks to get busy building “ships [and] domes” in order to gain self-respect. These speeches contain echoes of Booker T. Washington but also prefigure 21st-century assaults on the alleged derelictions of young black men, of the Bill Cosby or “pants on the ground” variety. In these talks, Douglass was not above bashing the Irishman as a “drunken pat” and the Indian as “contented with his blanket.” Another curious aspect of his self-made man speeches was that, by offering himself as an example of industriousness, he was ignoring the singularity of his own intellectual powers and the unique nature of his miraculous ascent.
The revolutionary who has lived to win the day often becomes a diminished figure, compromised by actual power or surviving unheroically on the edges of the new world he or she has summoned into being. Che died, while Castro lived. And in the period immediately following Emancipation, the Sage of Cedar Hill was, by his own admission, stripped of his purpose and his platform. In these years we find him occupying a mid-level federal sinecure in the Office of Deeds, or stumping for Republicans who had already begun their transformation from the party of Lincoln into the modern GOP. Near the end of his life, he had an unfortunate sojourn as consul general to Haiti, where he found himself reluctantly representing the United States as it greedily eyed Haitian coal and shipping interests. There was, too, his compromising role in the racist 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, appropriately nicknamed the White City. Yet, in spite of some serious missteps, Douglass always managed to regain his footing and continue the fight, obeying his own axiom that the “elevation as a race, is almost wholly dependent upon our own exertions.”
Weary and often sick at heart and in body, beset by family worries and financial woes, this man who had made his way from the bottom to the center of power fought to retain his revolutionary voice, to remain relevant in an increasingly unfamiliar reality. But Blight makes it clear that neither Douglass’s spirit nor his pen were truly broken. Near the end of his life, horrified by the fresh hell of Jim Crow that set off waves of lynching across the South, Douglass joined forces with the anti-lynching firebrand Ida B. Wells to raise his radical voice once more. In 1892, he wrote “Lynch Law of the South” for the North American Review, in which he said that, even if some black men had committed rape, all lynching did was “neutralize one poison by the employment of another.” It was the actions of the “howling mob,” performing juryless executions in public, which was the real “crime.” Accusing black men of sexual crimes was just an excuse for violence, he said, reminding readers of the generations of slave owners who had raped and brutalized black women with impunity. The mobs, he wrote, “have eyes, but see not, ears, but hear not, and they rush to their work of death as pitilessly as the tiger rushes upon his prey.”
In a phrase later channeled by James Baldwin, Douglass insisted that “the mis-called negro problem” belonged to the “whole country.” America, he said, had fallen into racial chaos, and those who sided with the “mobocratic murderers” were those for whom truth no longer mattered.
It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures, and hyena, will gloat over and prey upon dead bodies; but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing, and burning when their victims are dead.
These are not the words of a man who had lost his place in history.
In June 1861, Frederick Douglass wrote: “The human heart is a seat of constant war.” Douglass’s own heart was just such contested ground. “Underneath Douglass’s grand dignity,” Blight explains, “deep in his soul, ran a lode of humility born of experience […,] but embedded in that soul as well was his fierce, sometimes insecure, but also magnificent quest for respect, to compete, and to conquer his foes.”
Writing is a solitary task, yet this prolific writer craved the spotlight. He was a brilliant performer who shone most brightly from the proscenium, where he seamlessly melded fire and brimstone with a stinging irony. Often an absent father and husband, he yearned for home — a place that lived largely in his imagination. He was a Christian who used the Old Testament to bludgeon slaveholders with biblical proof of their evil. He adopted the style of the Southern gentleman while demanding the annihilation of the South. He was a revolutionary who called for violence against his foes, without ever resorting to the gun, and who, in the postbellum years, became an advocate of practical politics and self-help. He stood up for women’s rights while arguing that, while the vote for women was “desirable,” for black citizens it was “a question of life or death.” Married to a woman who could not read what he wrote, he engaged in a decades-long intimate relationship with an erudite European woman who expanded his grasp of Euro-American culture. And, after Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and abolitionist many years his junior.
“In the end,” Adam Gopnik writes, “[Frederick] Douglass fascinates because he embodies all the contradictions of the black experience in America.” Furious at the society that once held him as chattel, Douglass longed nonetheless to garner at least some of its bounty. As the 20th-century poet Robert Hayden wrote of Douglass:
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this beautiful
and needful thing. […]
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro [...]
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
Shall be remembered.
Mary F. Corey is a senior lecturer in American history at UCLA, specializing in intellectual history, popular culture, and Black nationalism.