Review: Calvin Baker on David Blight’s Frederick Douglass

David Blight’s courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction—those eight ill-fated years when America made its first, fledgling attempts at equality—were among the most popular on campus at Amherst College in the 1990s. “You have to take a class with Blight,” upperclassmen would tell me waiting on line at the Registrar’s Office, or in the dining hall, during the first weeks of a new semester. Time and again I would read the course descriptions, then experience a subconscious apprehension—the memory of being one of the only black kids in class reading Huckleberry Finn, the hovering hesitation of whether a white male perspective on race could be trusted. The blunt truth is I had met few white people, especially older ones, who could discuss racial realities, both cold-blooded historical facts and the Faustian hold they continue to exert on America and everyone within it, without hostility, defensiveness, or evasion. Not only was the country segregated, but, even for the best educated, knowledge of black America and its bedrock contribution to American culture was too often hidden behind the veil of race.

After college I eventually arrived at Blight’s door honestly, through his masterwork, Race and Reunion, and subsequently audited his online course of the same name. Both left me chagrined at the foolishness of my younger self. Honest intellectual inquiry and encounters grant us transcendent abilities, in ways that have much to teach not only about the power of such processes but what we lose when we, all too often, forgo them. Few students of American culture and history are as clear-eyed, astute, and even revolutionary as Blight.

In Race and Reunion Blight laid out a comprehensive argument that North and South reconciled in the decades after the Civil War at the expense of African-American rights. After surrendering to Grant’s Army, rebel soldiers turned to murderous violence against the civilian population of newly freed colored people. At the same time southerners began to advance the Lost Cause version of recent history, in which the war was a contest that pitted states’ rights and the southern way of life against northern hostility. In a climate in which Union opposition to slavery often went hand in hand with hatred of blacks, victor and vanquished soon reunited along a path that hugged close to the antebellum past. In the emergent myth of war both sides were widely depicted in the popular press, and on the political stump, as heroic, ignoring the war’s original impetus and squandering America’s first, best chance to redress the tyrannical exception its democracy made when it came to those of African descent.

With Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Blight revisits much of the same ground, including a number of important episodes, but on the more intimate scale of an individual life. As an orator, author, activist, and statesman Douglass shaped events on a scale available to few in his time. He was the most photographed American of his day, was famous across Great Britain and Ireland as well as America, knew half a dozen U.S. presidents, delivered the eulogy at the opening of the Lincoln Memorial at the request of Mary Todd Lincoln, and served as US ambassador to Haiti. All of this owed to his mastery of the spoken and written word, almost entirely through the remarkable self-education that began when he was a slave on Maryland’s eastern shore. His only formal instruction came briefly from the wife of one of his masters, and ceased when his owner found out. After overhearing his owner say education made men unfit to be slaves, Douglass applied himself to letters, it would be no overstatement to say, as though his life depended on it—the life that was his own, and not bound to another.

Where most historians have cast Lincoln or Grant or Lee as the central character in the epic history of the American Civil War, Blight has placed Douglass, arguing persuasively that Douglass deserves to be remembered as an American founding father: Blight’s choice restores primacy in the story to the role of slavery, and by extension racial equality. Douglass belonged to a lineage of black freedom fighters that includes Denmark Vesey and Sojourner Truth, who led revolts and individual escapes, as well as white freedom fighters like William Lloyd Garrison, an early mentor, and the martyr John Brown, who led the ill-fated, patently ill-advised raid on Harper’s Ferry. As the most prominent orator in the country in a golden period of public speaking, Douglass forged an extraordinary connection to audiences across the American spectrum, stirred many to action, and told the story of slavery—through his own story—better than anyone else in the antebellum era. As moral and political philosopher he bore most eloquent witness to the national and individual perils of the slave state, that part of the national life most preferred to forget. As a writer who revealed the pain and hardship, contradiction and promise of his own black life and mind, he was one of the most potent instruments of national memory.

For Blight memory is a dynamic force—where history is a public narrative, memory is a private, no less powerful one, sometimes a corrective and other times, as in the case of America’s relationship to slavery, a counter-narrative. In three remarkable autobiographies Douglass himself documented a life that began in slavery and ended up shaping his time. It was the first two especially that shone moral and psychological light on a country defined by slavery, yet unaccustomed to hearing the voices of the enslaved. Although he never held elected office, his unavoidable witness, as Bight’s beautifully researched argument shows, helped shape the “second republic” that arose from the ashes of civil war into, for the first time, a model of universal democracy. (Douglass also advocated for equal rights for women.) However violently southern segregationists and their racist sympathizers in the north tried to resist this new reality—through legal strategies, electoral compromise, and rewritten history—this second republic remains fundamental to our political identity today, both as an aspiration and an object of opposition.

Douglass’s private self was more complex, in ways Blight’s biography serves for the most part to humanize. Among the seeming contradictions in someone so otherwise morally upright, Douglass was unable to find domestic happiness and intellectual companionship in the same woman. He married Anna Murray soon after she helped him escape slavery at the age of twenty and remained with her the rest her life. He also had at least three affairs of the heart with well educated (white) abolitionist women. Remarkably he often boarded them under the same roof as his wife. Blight is able to find sympathy for all but one of the women (the often presumptuous bourgeoise German Ottilie Assing), as well as the orphaned Douglass who seems both love-starved and duty bound.

Even as this new volume sheds welcome new light on Douglass’s life and character, however, one feels there is a dimension of the man that remains elusively out of reach. For instance, Blight notes how Douglass’s beliefs transformed from the pacifism prevalent among his fellow abolitionists to an embrace of revolutionary violence in opposition to slavery, making a convincing case that he carried a deep-set anger from his life as a slave. But one never feels the turmoil of competing ideas in a literary imagination that ran toward the Old Testament, Shakespeare, and the Romantics. Blight faults Douglass for only fitfully engaging with the oppressions of class and capital, without really developing these ideas. He reaches easily to comparing Douglass to Shakespeare’s Othello, a black man ascendant in a white world, but the analogy doesn’t quite hold: in his extensive dealings with John Brown, for instance, Douglass was a strategic realist nearly to the point of physical cowardice, unlike Shakespeare’s hero of the field.

Douglass, whose acquaintances ran the gamut from self-emancipated slaves to presidents, walked between worlds. But he also kept company with a remarkable number of other gifted African Americans, including the New York printer-abolitionist David Ruggles, who sheltered him during his crucial first weeks of freedom and in fact gave him the name Douglass; James McCune Smith, a physician-abolitionist who was the first black American to open an apothecary; and, among a younger generation, the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells and poet Paul Dunbar. One misses more insight into this milieu, the ways these people shaped Douglass, who, even as he was assuming a public role as representative of black America, was also learning how to be a free man of color. Although they disagreed on methods, they shared a common mission of modeling black citizenship for a deeply racist society. The fight for racial justice, morally and politically, was always an internal concern: Douglass’s deep, interior journey is more seen than felt in Blight’s book, although perhaps biography must in the end always be concerned with the public face.

A great deal of the private Douglass that we do see for the first time is made possible in large part by Blight’s access to the collection of Walter O. Evans, an African-American collector, now housed at the Savannah College of Art and Design (see the recent book If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection). Evans has for over forty years amassed intimate Douglass family correspondence and a striking group of photographs along with a significant body of African-American art. The importance of his labor serves as subtle reminder of the ways not only memory but history itself can remain segregated in America. Blight is a major historian in what is still in intellectual terms a new field. In detangling fact from legend and misrepresentation, across the race line, he serves as apostle of the slowly unfolding America that Douglass envisioned so long ago.


Calvin Baker is the author of the novels Naming the New WorldOnce Two HeroesDominion, and Grace

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in box. Thank you for your subscription! As a subscriber you can read our full archive at bookpostusa.com. Please help us spread the word about Book Post: your subscriptions keep us going, supporting writers and books and reading across America.

Coming soon: Àlvaro Enrigue on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Geoffrey O’Brien on Marvin Gaye, more!

Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn is Book Post’s winter partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent booksellers and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. Spend more than $100 at Greenlight and we’ll give you or a friend a free one-month subscription (send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com).

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”