Eric Foner raves about David Blight’s new biography of Frederick Douglass

Historians in the News
tags: Frederick Douglass, Eric Foner, David Blight

Let me begin on a personal note. Over half a century ago, my uncle, the historian Philip S. Foner, rescued Frederick Douglass from undeserved obscurity. Beginning in 1950, he edited four volumes of Douglass’s magnificent speeches and writings, each with a long biographical introduction that chronicled his rise to international renown as a crusader for abolition and racial equality. It is difficult to believe, given his prominence during his lifetime, but Douglass was virtually unknown outside the black community at the time. Almost all of the books about him were by black writers—Benjamin Quarles, Shirley Graham Du Bois, even Booker T. Washington—or by white ones, such as my uncle, oriented to the Old Left and attuned to the problem of racial justice. My own high-school history textbook, by Columbia University professor David S. Muzzey, contained no reference to Douglass (indeed, the only black person mentioned by name in the entire book was Toussaint L’Ouverture).

Today, Douglass is ubiquitous. Avenues, plazas, and schools are named in his honor. He has been the subject of poems, novels, and plays and is among the few African Americans whose statues grace the public landscape. Every aspect of his life, it seems, commands scholarly attention. In the past few years, books have appeared about Douglass’s ideas on race and politics; the public reception of his writings; his relationships with women; the similarities and differences between him and his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln; and his ideas on freedom as compared with those of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. There is even a Douglass encyclopedia. Indeed, Douglass’s fame has attained such heights that even President Trump—not known for his deep familiarity with American history—appears to have heard of him.

Douglass’s current status as a national hero poses a challenge for the biographer, making it difficult to view him dispassionately. Moreover, those who seek to tell his story must compete with their subject’s own version of it. Douglass published three autobiographies, among the greatest works of this genre in American literature. They present not only a powerful indictment of slavery, but also a tale of extraordinary individual achievement (it is no accident that Douglass’s most frequently delivered lecture was titled “Self-Made Men”). Like all autobiographies, however, Douglass’s were simultaneously historical narratives and works of the imagination. As David Blight notes in his new book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, some passages in them—especially those relating to Douglass’s childhood—are “almost pure invention,” which means the biographer must resist the temptation to take these books entirely at face value.

There are other challenges as well. Douglass was born in 1818, and his life spanned almost the entire 19th century. He experienced both rural and urban slavery and played a crucial role in the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. He became a leading proponent of Reconstruction, when the Constitution was amended to create, for the first time in this country, an interracial democracy, and he lived to witness the imposition of a new system of racial inequality in the South. He edited newspapers and delivered thousands of speeches. He also went to great lengths to control his visual image. The most photographed American of the 19th century, Douglass was fully aware of the widespread circulation of demeaning caricatures of black Americans. His own portraits, dignified and arresting, unadorned with background accoutrements, embodied the claim of African Americans to freedom and equality.

To tell Douglass’s story, then, one must possess excellent research skills, a full command of the voluminous literature on his era, and a humane appreciation of the issues central to his career, which reverberate down to the present. Fortunately, Blight, who teaches American history at Yale, has all of these qualities. ...

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