Frederick Douglass Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight Pages 760
Courier Book Reviewed by Greg M. Romaneck
There are times when a reader comes across a book that manifests the author’s depth of knowledge on a given subject. In other instances, readers may find books that are skillfully written by men and women who have a talent for narrative. On occasion, you may peruse a book that tells an engaging story and does so in a way that draws you into it. David W. Blight’s recent in-depth biography of Frederick Douglass is one those rare books that combines all of these traits and does so in a way that leaves the reader not only knowing far more about an amazing person but also the way in which the world he lived in has affected our very own.
In Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom readers will encounter a man whose life is so improbable that if written in a novel many people would refuse to believe the plausibility of the plot line. Douglass was probably born in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass’s mother was Harriet Bailey, one of five daughters of Betsy Bailey, and a woman who was to die at a young age only eight years after Frederick’s birth. Frederick’s father, in all probability, was his mother’s white owner. Douglass was removed from his birthplace, and his family, when he was only seven years old, and thus began his hard years of education where the harsh realities of slavery carved their lessons into the very flesh, mind, and spirit of young Frederick Douglass. The result of those hard life lessons of bondage, paired with the almost fantastical experiences the aging Douglass had as a prominent freedman, molded the character of a man who would become one of the most famous individuals of the nineteenth century.
Douglass fled from slavery as a young man and entered into a period of life and work that resulted in not only amazing accomplishments in the field of civil rights before, during, and after the Civil War, but also a truly exceptional life in general. As Professor Blight chronicles in this comprehensive biography, Frederick Douglass became the primary spokesperson for the honor and dignity of African-American’s lives during his era. It can be reasonably argued that until the coming of Dr. Martin Luther King onto the national stage of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid twentieth century, that Frederick Douglass was the most significant voice for the freedom of African-Americans in the nation’s history. Douglass was also the most widely photographed American of the 19th century. Douglass was competitive with Mark Twain for the honor of being the most widely traveled American public figure of his century. In terms of sheer miles traveled and number of speeches made, Douglass’s efforts left him few rivals for the honor of being the most widely heard American public speaker of his age. It is quite probable that more Americans heard Frederick Douglass give a speech than anyone else of what was a golden age for public oration. In fact, as David Blight notes early on in this amazing book, “Indeed, to see or hear Douglass speak became a kind of wonder of the American world.” But, despite all the fame that came to Frederick Douglass, his life was one marked by bitter familial losses, physical pain, abiding defeats, and the harsh reality that all too often he and his people were beaten down by a society that seemed hellbent on punishing them for their color and heritage.
Douglass was also not a saint. Throughout his life Frederick Douglass demonstrated the ability to shine as a thinker, speaker, and writer. A supremely talented and driven man, Douglass was also a complex web of strengths and weaknesses. These contrasting qualities are vividly captured by Blight through his exhaustive research, cunning narrative, and great skill as a story teller. By the end of Blight’s book readers should conclude that Frederick Douglass lived a life that was almost storybook in terms of its implausibility but also one that featured tremendous highs and lows which could break most people. The result of the essential contradictions and improbabilities of Douglass’s success was a life of exceptional value while simultaneously being one lived on an edge of energy that periodically nearly broke his heart. This contrasting reality is ably captured by Blight who manifests a tremendous capacity for telling the story of one singular person’s life in a way that allows readers not only to ponder upon it but also reflect on its implications for their own lives. As Blight notes, “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.” This is a fitting description not only for Frederick Douglass but for all of us, who are made up of contradictory elements of good and evil that clash during the courses of our lives. By showing Douglass to be above all utterly human in his capacity to act with strength and weakness, the author of this fine book brings him to life for readers in a way that makes him approachable as a person and not simply a statue from the past.
Perhaps no element of this biography stands out more than those pages, chapters, and sections that the author dedicates to Douglass’s tireless efforts to use the written word as a tool of expression directed at freeing people. Literacy was a hard-won skill that young Frederick Douglass surreptitiously earned. Reading was unacceptable for most slaves but Douglass managed to find remarkable ways to become literate. With some assistance from the wife of one of his masters, Douglass not only learned to read but honed that essential skill into a weapon he used to fight against the institutions of oppression that ground his people into the mud. Over the course of his life Douglass wrote literally millions of words. In Douglass’s autobiographies, speeches, newspaper articles, and the papers he edited, it can be argued that Douglass was among the most prolific American writers of the 19th century. These words of Douglass had a consistent focus aimed at illuminating the realities of slavery and oppression while at the same time impacting his audience so that change could occur. When the words used by Douglass in his thousands of speeches are added to those he scribed, the end result is an avalanche of rhetoric that helped push America closer to being a true democracy rather than a fake one built upon an ignorance of its very essence. As Blight writes, “Douglass was a man of words; spoken and written language was the only major weapon of protest, persuasion, or power that he ever possessed.”
On the personal front, as David Blight describes, Douglass experienced both great happiness and terrible emptiness. Douglass married Anna Murray, a woman who was a tremendously devoted supporter of his life as well as a loving mother to his children. But it cannot be argued that marriage was satisfying for Douglass. Anna was a loving woman but one who was uneducated and bent upon a quiet, domesticated life. Anna bore five children and watched as her husband traveled the nation and the world while she remained home tending to her growing family. This distancing of husband and wife left Frederick Douglass prone to seeking out long-term friendship with a series of highly intellectual women who themselves stirred controversy. Douglass flaunted the social code of his era by maintaining intimate relationships with several Caucasian women inclusive of his second wife, Helen Pitts whom he married in his old age. Douglass also lived to see the struggles of his own children, the death of his steadfast first wife, and the sad deaths of numerous grandchildren. This personal turmoil, and the long-suffering yet stoic nature of Anna Murray Douglass, resonate and should leave readers wanting to know more about this patient woman who stood by her “great” husband while silently enduring tremendous inner pain. Blight brings Douglass’s personal life to light in this painstaking study and does so in ways that help the reader to understand that he was not simply an historical figure but rather a living, breathing man.
In the end, Frederick Douglass saw enormous gain and loss in terms of the fate of African-Americans and their plight in the United States. Born at a time when the fate of the vast majority of African-Americans was to live in bondage, Douglass lived to see emancipation become a reality. The opportunities of equality harkened toward during the Reconstruction period gave Douglass great hope for the future of his race. Those hopes, in turn, were crushed by the end of Reconstruction and the commencement of the Jim Crow era featuring voter suppression, lynching, the eradication of hard won civil rights, and economic nullity for African-Americans. Douglass also saw the reality of a Supreme Court that seemed bent on suppressing the rights of Black people in ways offered little or no hope that the promises made during the Civil War would ever be honored. When Douglass died in 1895 the United States was a nation where segregation and inequality for Black people was the norm, while the fading memory of the realities of the Civil War was papered over by the false narrative of the Lost Cause. While Douglass saw great gains for African-Americans in his lifetime he died a man who mourned the loss of the dreams of equality that he had used to motivate his entire life. Little did he know that the struggle he dedicated himself to would persist not only into the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King and other noteworthy men and women, but to this very day. In telling the story of Frederick Douglass’s life in a way that is noteworthy and deserving of literary honors in the field of biography, David Blight has served his readers well. Frederick Douglass was a brilliant and flawed man, and one whose extraordinary life is essential to understanding his nation’s history and all the racial contradictions that have persistently plagued it.