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book review

Complex look at Frederick Douglass with a lesson for Trump era

Enrique Moreiro for The Boston Globe

David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With  extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and  paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century. One would expect nothing less. Blight, considered a leading authority on the slavery period, has been thinking about Douglass for over 35 years. The Yale historian wrote his dissertation on him. And now with unprecedented access to a trove of material gathered by African-American art collector Walter O. Evans, Blight sheds light on the final 30 years of Douglass’s life in ways we have never seen. The resulting chronicle enriches our understanding of Douglass and the challenges he faced and offers a lesson for our own troubled times.

What surfaces is a powerful and flawed human being. We see him struggling to create himself under the conditions of slavery, waging war against the peculiar institution with words and action, raging against “the infinite manifestations of racism” (what Douglass called our “national faith”), and remaining a loyal partisan of the Republican Party until the day his heart gave out in 1895 at age 77. His is a journey from radical outsider to political insider, a prophet whose fires cooled as he aged, gained famed, and acquired access to the corridors of power.


But we also get a glimpse of the intimate spaces of Douglass’s private life that are haunted by the specter of his slave experience. Blight reminds us that slavery stole from Douglass “all filial affection . . . [H]e never found it easy to love, while always seeking love as much as anything else in life.” Perhaps this gaping absence or, better, need, along with his hatred of slavery and American racism, kept him on the road, even in old age. Douglass maintained a back-breaking speaking schedule. Constantly traveling, he left his family in the hands of his unshakable wife, Anna Murray, an illiterate, free-born woman who grew up on the east bank of the Tuckahoe River in Maryland. It was she who bore the burden of raising their family, managing the household (often under financial duress), and helping to navigate the life of the most famous black man in the world.

This private realm is one in which children sought the approval of their famous father and repeatedly borrowed money from him to prop up failed business ventures. It was a refuge in which Douglass sometimes expressed his insecurities and loneliness, where grandchildren loved to play with their grandfather’s white hair, and where death seemed to shadow every nook and cranny. The passing of children in the 19th century wasn’t an unusual occurrence. But it seems that funerals of grandchildren at Cedar Hill, the Douglass home in Washington, D.C., was a never-ending ritual.


Blight is masterful in handling this material. In these moments, the pace of this big book picks up; the details pull you in; and if only just for a moment, the larger-than-life image dips and we see the man.

Of course, the heroic figure remains central. Douglass as prophet, writer, and politician emerges from these pages. Blight brilliantly shows how his subject drew on biblical languages, even as he expressed skepticism about white Christendom in criticizing the sins of the country. As Blight put it, “[h]e was an American Jeremiah chastising the flock as he also called them back to their covenants and creeds.” But this isn’t a simple story about Douglass’s politics. His prophetic fire matters in the context of his heroic effort to will himself into being.


In one sense, Douglass’s fight against slavery involved an act of self-creation, with his literary pen one of his primary tools.

Each of his autobiographies serves as an anchor in the book. The early “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’’ gives us the young, ambitious Douglass. “My Bondage and My Freedom,’’ the second installment and perhaps the most powerful of the three, is also the most political and reflects Douglass’s rage and the tumult of the 1850s. The last, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,’’ offers a look over his life’s journey as he, among other things, lists his accomplishments and recalls his friends and connections. In some ways, with each book, Douglass sought to possess a life that initially was not his to have and, in doing so, he wrote himself into existence. And he kept writing until the end. Even in the last year of his life, Douglass struggled to possess the uncertainty of his beginnings. He wrote to Benjamin Auld, a son of his former owner, asking for any information about his father and his actual age. It is a stunning and poignant moment. “All great autobiography is about loss, about the hopeless but necessary quest to retrieve and control a past that forever slips away,’’ Blight observes. “Memory is both inspiration and burden, method and subject, the thing one cannot live with or without.”

A constant feature throughout is Douglass’s relentless effort to break the hold of slavery and its aftermath on the country. Blight narrates the shifts in the tone and substance of Douglass’s political positions over his life: his embrace of Garrisonianism, the intensity of his break with his radical mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, the development of his political pragmatism, his initial skepticism of the Republican Party, his fierce criticisms of Abraham Lincoln, his call for the utter destruction of the slaveholding regime, his repeated waving of the bloody shirt, his crass political calculations and nepotism (and his sometimes shocking views of empire, of Native Americans, and of Catholics), the distorting effects of his fame on his politics and leadership (Douglass fiercely guarded his status as the leader of Black America), and his prophetic warning about the perils of forgetting and backsliding. Douglass found himself, just a decade and a half after emancipation — something that seemed unimaginable in his lifetime — fighting “to protect political and constitutional triumphs.” The nation was actively working to forget the sin of slavery and the moral costs of white supremacy. He fought tooth and nail against those he called “the apostles of forgetfulness.”


In this sense, reading Blight’s magisterial book against the backdrop of Trumpism makes the example of Douglass all the more extraordinary. “Make America Great Again” sounds like the clarion call of those apostles of forgetfulness. It is a slogan embraced by modern-day Copperheads. But Douglass warned that “it is not well to forget the past.” His story, in Blight’s careful hands, was a dress rehearsal for our own times. Our present course of action, Douglass might say, must be shaped by “a history braced by a tragic sensibility” and be one that doesn’t shy away from who we actually are and the horrible things we have done. Otherwise, as we are now painfully aware, the ugliness overwhelms.


FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Prophet of Freedom

By David Blight

Simon & Schuster, 888 pp., illustrated, $37.50

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor at Princeton University.