Three Recent Books Examine Frederick Douglass' LegacyHistorians in the News
tags: books, Frederick Douglass
Allis Radosh, PhD, has taught at Sarah Lawrence College and the City University of New York and is the co-author, with Ronald Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.
We take our birthdays for granted, but for Frederick Douglass one of the many evils of slavery was that it denied to slaves that basic fact about themselves. On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot Country, Maryland, where Douglass was born, few slaves, he wrote, “knew anything of the months of the year or of the days of the month,” let alone their birthdays. “Masters allowed no questions to be put to them by slaves concerning their ages. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of impudent curiosity.” Since, as Douglass put it, “genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves” he made up his own birthday—July 14—but found out just a year before his death in 1895 that he was actually born in February 1818.
Not knowing these basic facts was infuriating and humiliating to a man as accomplished as Douglass, who began his life as a slave, emancipated himself, dedicated his life to ending slavery and fighting racism, and became the most celebrated African-American of his time. In our own time, Douglass is enjoying something of a scholarly renaissance, timed with the recent celebration of his bicentennial. Yet the quest to define Douglass—his personality, his political convictions, and his legacy—remains as contested as ever.
Douglass himself was the first to enter the fray, writing three versions of his autobiography. First came his unforgettable Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, which covered his life as a slave and his dramatic escape. As the century progressed, he updated his story with My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) followed by Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892) which dealt with events during and after the Civil War. In addition, he left behind hundreds of articles and two newspapers, the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. And then there are the thousands of speeches Douglass delivered, which cemented his reputation as one of the most compelling orators of his time. As David Blight writes, “Douglass worshipped books, cherished contemplation and debate. . . . Words and ideas were the bread and butter of his life.”
Blight would know. The Yale historian, who worked on his 750-page biography for almost ten years, has written what he “hopes” is “the fullest account ever written of the last third of Douglass’s complex and epic life.” It is this and much more. Drawing heavily on his autobiographies and speeches, Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom also relies on new material unearthed in a private collection in Georgia, which consisted of scrapbooks put together by Douglass’s son Frederick Jr. These helped Blight fill in gaps in Douglass’s story from Reconstruction to his death in 1895.
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