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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

October 17, 2019

Frederick DouglassFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.  Simon & Schuster, 2018.

5 stars

The intellectual history of the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and a leading abolitionist and writer of the era.  Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.

David W. Blight is the Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.  He has written and edited a dozen books, some specifically about Douglass and others about the context of Douglass’ life.  Many have won prizes. His new book has quickly become the definitive biography of Douglass’s life.  It has been widely read and discussed in all media.  I simply want to add my own words of praise and my personal response to it.

How do you write an intellectual history of man born and raised in an institution that specifically denied him the right to read and write?  Even if he became a man whose wisdom and speaking ability was among the greatest of our national history?  Blight has risen to the challenge using contemporary scholarships’ focus of Douglass’s use of words and language, first as a tool of survival for Douglass and later as the core of his oratory.  Never a theorist, Blight focuses closely what Douglass said and wrote and why he chose to express himself as he did.  The large narrative of Douglass’s life is always present for Blight, but the narrative focuses on how Douglass created power for himself and his people through words.

The narrative of Douglass’s childhood as slave is familiar to many of us partly because of the eloquence with which he told his own story in his amazing autobiographies.  Blight relies on Douglass’ own words while filling in details and exploring their context.  He looks at how words and language helped Douglass understand and survive the dehumanizing aspects of slave life.  Blight credits the attention that Douglass devoted to a book of oratory he studied as an adolescent, the same book that Lincoln was studying as a boy in Illinois.  It was a book with practical suggestions for would-be orators and included copies of various speeches supporting rights and full humanity for all.  Lots of quotes from Douglass and bits of information about the time and places he lived make this part of the book particularly fun to read.

As Douglass escaped slavery and moved into marriage and abolition, Blight widens his story.   Turning to a wider range of sources, Blight gives us a balanced picture of him, his followers and detractors.  The abolitionist movement, which formed the context for Douglass’ oratory, was a chaotic movement, not only attacked from the outside, but full of divisions and animosity.  The biggest spit was the debate over the means by which abolition was to be achieved; moral persuasion or politics and violence.  Douglass was an angry young black man, full of rhetoric rejecting his country and the Constitution.  As he moved from devotion to his mentor Garrison into the support of political liberation, he struck out at other abolitionists and his country itself. His famous “Fourth of July” Speech is an example of his anger.

The Douglass’ relationship with women was another divisive issue then and now. His friendship with white women scandalized his fellow workers and his enemies. Blight writes with great sensitivity about Douglass’s relationship to women while not sensationalizing it.  Douglass’s wife, Ann, was a capable but illiterate black woman who raised their five children with little involvement of her famous husband.  In addition, Douglass observed and admired the ways in women, white and black, contributed to the abolitionist movement.  He was so impressed that he became supportive of the early women’s rights, even attending Seneca Falls.  In the 1850s, an aristocratic English woman lived with the Douglass family working as a close assistant to him in the publication of his newspaper and his other abolitionist activities.   Blight thinks that explicitly sexual behavior between them was improbable, but they scandalized those within and without the abolitionist movement.  She became essential to the financial survival of Douglass’s family and paper and to the daily labor of publishing.  As Blight points out, the managing of a newspaper for a cause to which she was devoted was not a position she could have dreamed of having anywhere else.  Douglass would continue to be involved with white women and, after Anna’s death controversially married one.

I fully recommend Blight’s biography to all readers who want to understand a little known but major leader in American history and the stage on which he acted.  It will also be of interest to those interested in the use and value to words and language.  At 400 pages, it is a big book, worth sampling if not reading it all.

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