An inescapable feeling washed over me as I finished David W. Blight's fabulous new biography of Frederick Douglass: That this greatest of all American abolitionists labored in vain for the liberation of his fellow blacks. This is because 156 years after his emancipation, the country that Douglass adored despite having been enslaved by it is led by a blatant racist and the essential tools that he tirelessly preached blacks must use -- their voices, their pens and their votes -- are under threat by nativists for whom the Lost Cause remains forever noble and who are panicking over their diminishing white majority.
That is not to ignore the achievements of Douglass, as well as subsequent civil rights stalwarts including as W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Malcolm X, but that inescapable feeling is driven by the reality that while American social and political life has never been more diverse, a pernicious color line persists because racists from Donald Trump on down have an outsized influence in making their personal prejudices public policy.
Blight's Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a myth-penetrating revelation.
This is because when Douglass's life as a runaway slave who became the oracle of 19th Century America is studied close-up, the Black History Month caricature falls away to reveal a prose poet of extraordinary intellect who did not merely talk the talk, but searched tirelessly for the meaning of the human soul and why some people aspire to freedom, that most beautiful of manmade things, while others would deny it to those not of their color and kind.
In one respect, the job of any Douglass biographer is made easier because he wrote three autobiographies, lastly and most importantly his magisterial Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, that are substantially accurate despite a fair amount of hyperbole.
Blight notes that Douglass was less "self made" as he claimed than blessed with able mentors and plain old good fortune. Douglass also left a great deal out of his life stories, and this is where Blight's meticulous scholarship fills in the gaps, most of them, anyway. (Douglass did not and we still do not know who is father was, although Blight believes that he almost certainly was white and possibly his mother's owner, and he never gave Anna Douglass the credit she was due as the long-suffering mother of their five children and the rock in his life as a wandering oracle.)
Blight writes that Douglass was a "man of words," making his book "the biography of a voice," and that voice thundered ceaselessly from 1838, when dressed up as a sailor he and his free black wife Anna slipped out of Baltimore and fled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was recruited to the abolitionist movement, until he drew his last breath in 1895.
Especially fascinating -- and revealing -- was Douglass's relationship with Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass thought little of Lincoln at first and even less when Lincoln used the first-ever presidential meeting with African-Americans to promote a plan for colonizing blacks in Caribbean and Africa nations, a racist alternative to emancipation that Douglass correctly railed against. But when Lincoln, wounded by Douglass's lashing attacks on him for vacillating on black rights in the South, summoned him to the White House, they quickly reached a rapprochement and became soul mates of a short. Douglass went on to play a central role in America's halting postwar transformation, which sputtered to an ignominious halt in a few years as Jim Crow laws prevailed over Reconstruction efforts, the Republican Party of Lincoln sold out to capitalist interests, and an epidemic of lynchings commenced not just in the Deep South, but in so-called free states, as well.
Douglass . . . rose from nowhere to the centers of power, or so it had seemed. He loved power but found he could wield it only with limits and often softly. He had made vanity and pride often into weapons alongside his words; he outlasted most of his enemies, except the ideology of white supremacy, which only seemed to transmogrify into more virulent forms in old age. Underneath Douglass's grand dignity, deep in his soul, ran a lode of humility born of experience and a long view of history, but embedded in that soul as well was his fierce, sometimes insecure, but often magnificent quest for respect, to compete, and to conquer his foes.In February 2017 at a Black History Month event, the White Supremacist in Chief was in his by-now familiar ignoramus mode when he implied that Douglass was alive and "doing a tremendous job."
Douglass would not have returned the compliment.
"Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough," Douglass declared prophetically in "Sources of Danger to the Republic," one of his most famous speeches. "[But] we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.