[Marxism] Frederick Douglass bio

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 24 11:36:11 MDT 2019


LRB, Vol. 41 No. 15 · 1 August 2019
Leave them weeping
Colin Grant

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
Simon and Schuster, 892 pp, £30.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 4165 9031 6

One of the peace walls near the Falls Road in Belfast is decorated with 
a mural featuring several famous figures – among them, Nelson Mandela, 
Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. At its centre, though, five times the 
size of the others, is a stern-looking man with bushy, neatly parted 
grey hair, wearing a frock-coat and necktie. Two hundred years after his 
birth into slavery, Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and writer once 
described as ‘an ornament to society and a blessing to his race’, looms 
munificently over the city he visited during a speaking tour of Ireland 
in 1845. The image on the mural is based on one of the 160 photographs 
taken of Douglass: a total that helped make him one of the most famous 
and recognisable Americans of the 19th century. Broad-shouldered, 
intense and handsome, he looks like a statesman – the antithesis, 
purposefully so, of the stock image of the degraded slave.

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Maryland in 
1818, to a white man (probably a slaveholder) and an enslaved woman, 
Harriet Bailey. As he put it in his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life 
of Frederick Douglass, his mother, ‘like many other slave women, had 
many children, but NO FAMILY’. Hired out to a plantation 12 miles away, 
she was unable to visit her children and return in time for the 
overseer’s horn the next morning. Despite whisperings about his 
parentage, Douglass was never able to discover his father’s identity. 
His mother died when he was seven. He was close to his grandmother, but 
not to any of his siblings, displaced as they were around the plantation.

As a young boy he was stoical and resourceful. He had a habit of singing 
outside the window of Lucretia Auld, his owner’s daughter – a ploy she 
‘very soon came to understand as a petition for a piece of bread’. He 
was exposed to countless acts of brutality: a river dyed red with the 
blood of a runaway slave shot in the back; a young woman stripped near 
naked, her hands tied and suspended from a hook, toes barely touching 
the ground, whipped intermittently on the master’s whim. He was hungry, 
and sometimes so cold at night that he would bury himself in a bag used 
for carrying corn – head in, feet out. His feet, Douglass wrote, had 
been ‘so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing 
might be laid in the gashes’. And yet the only pieces of advice adult 
slaves would give him were: don’t look up in the presence of your 
overseer and avert your gaze from the suffering of others.

When he was eight Douglass was sent to Baltimore, to another branch of 
his master’s family. There, a Miss Sophia gave him rudimentary reading 
lessons until her husband objected, arguing that it would ‘forever unfit 
him for the duties of a slave’. But Douglass continued to read furtively 
in the house, and openly in the street, bartering words for bread with a 
group of Irish American children whom he would corner as they sat on the 
kerb – Webster’s spelling book in hand – to demand lessons. His 
excitement about what reading could lead to peaked when he acquired a 
copy of the Columbian Orator, a compendium of famous speeches and essays 
on liberation, including a ‘Dialogue Between a Master and a Slave’ which 
he treasured all his life. He spent only a few years in Baltimore: after 
the death of the family patriarch all slaves were returned to the 
plantation to be shared out between the dead man’s relatives.

In 1834, Douglass’s new master, Thomas Auld, a mean ‘object of 
contempt’, believing his authority was being challenged by his insolent 
teenage slave, handed him over ‘to be broken’ by an overseer called 
Edward Covey. ‘Mr Covey succeeded in breaking me,’ Douglass wrote, ‘in 
body, soul and spirit.’ He was reduced to a beastlike stupor – but then 
one day he fought back, unnerving Covey, who didn’t want to admit that 
the 16-year-old still had the capacity to resist him.

His ability to read and write gave him status in the eyes of his fellow 
slaves, a handful of whom attended a Bible study group he set up. It was 
hardly inevitable, even so, that Douglass would think of escape. For 
every slave who attempted to flee, thousands of others saw the folly of 
doing so: the severity of punishments for those who were caught, 
especially the possibility of being sold ‘down river’ to the cotton 
plantations of the deep South, was sufficient to discourage thoughts of 
freedom. Douglass took the risk, but his first attempt failed, leading 
to his and his accomplices’ immediate arrest. That misfortune, however, 
was followed by a piece of astounding good luck. In a decision that is 
still difficult to fathom, instead of punishing him the authorities sent 
him back to Baltimore.

In the Narrative, Douglass says that he often found himself wishing he 
were dead. He envied slaves who did not spend their time thinking about 
their condition. But suicide was only one way to escape bondage, and 
within two years he’d hatched another plan. In Baltimore he’d fallen in 
love with Anna Murray, a free black woman. She provided funds, documents 
that enabled him to travel (‘free papers’ lent by a retired black 
sailor) and naval costume – and Douglass took a series of trains north. 
On 4 September 1838 he arrived in New York: ‘I was a FREEMAN, and the 
voice of peace and joy thrilled my heart!’

Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line meant freedom from bondage, symbolised by 
Douglass’s decision to drop his given surname, Bailey, in favour of one 
he chose himself. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 a ‘runaway’ could 
legally be recaptured and sent back to the plantations: fugitive slaves 
couldn’t afford to let down their guard. But in New York Douglass and 
Anna (who followed him north and soon married him) found support from 
free blacks, other fugitive slaves, and members of the congregation at 
the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where Douglass’s account of 
his escape was first publicly aired. He quickly joined forces with the 
American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), editions of whose abolitionist 
paper, the Liberator, he carried everywhere, along with his copy of the 
Columbian Orator.

After hearing Douglass speak for the first time, William Lloyd Garrison, 
the Liberator’s editor, wrote that he was ‘one in intellect richly 
endowed – in natural eloquence a prodigy – in soul manifestly “created 
but a little lower than the angels”’. Overnight he became a poster boy 
for the movement, striking a deal with the AASS for a three-month trial 
on the speaking circuit. His own body could serve as proxy for the 
suffering of all slaves, a present example of the way ‘the overseer had 
written his character on the living parchment of most of their backs.’ 
Audiences were startled by his youth and erudition; according to the 
abolitionist Edmund Quincy, ‘some of the people were amazed that a 
nigger could talk so well.’ The talks were often delivered without 
notes; sometimes they lasted three hours.

Douglass pilloried the abolitionists who had told him it was ‘better 
[to] have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ’tis not 
best that you seem too learned.’ He was always scornful of anything that 
smacked of minstrelsy. Earlier slave narratives, popular with white 
readers for their blend of romance and gothic horror, were often 
dictated to and accompanied by a note from a white amanuensis attesting 
to their veracity (a ‘black message inside a white envelope’). 
Douglass’s more sophisticated autobiography had an important addendum to 
its title, ‘Written by Himself’. Its popularity – five thousand copies 
were sold within four months – reflected his extraordinary talent for 
making viscerally real what was for many readers the abstraction of 
slavery. As David Blight puts it in his excellent new biography, he 
‘learned how to leave them weeping’.

But the Narrative’s publication also threatened Douglass’s safety. He 
was still a slave who could legally be recaptured – easily, since the 
book identified him and his former masters by name. It was partly for 
this reason that he now, at the age of 27, set out across the Atlantic. 
In Ireland he came under ‘exoticised scrutiny’; his great success there 
was in contrast to the thuggish reception he had received at the hands 
of Irish Americans at home. He urged his audiences in Ireland and 
Britain to recognise American slaveholders as state-sanctioned criminals 
who had effectively held to ransom millions of their compatriots. While 
he was in England his supporters raised sufficient funds to pay his 
ransom note, buying his freedom and eliminating the threat of 
re-enslavement. Julia Griffiths, a white Englishwoman, followed Douglass 
back to America to assist with the North Star, the abolitionist paper he 
launched in 1847. For more than a decade, as editor and publisher, 
Douglass used it as a platform for disseminating his politics and 
philosophy while simultaneously solidifying his position as America’s 
most prominent black figure.

Blight painstakingly examines the story Douglass tells in the Narrative, 
and in his later autobiographical works, My Bondage and My Freedom 
(1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). How reliable a 
witness was he? Blight seeks to demonstrate that Douglass’s three books 
differ in the telling not by accident but by design: they are revisions 
which meet both Douglass’s need to project an appropriate version of 
himself and his determination for his story to serve as an encapsulation 
of America’s toxic history.

Though Douglass prided himself on his memory, Blight suggests that his 
recollections of his mother are mostly invented. This wouldn’t be 
surprising. In the Narrative, Douglass wrote that ‘I never saw my mother 
… more than four or five times … and at night,’ and continued: ‘I 
received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should 
probably have felt at the death of a stranger.’ A decade later, in My 
Bondage and My Freedom, he wrote: ‘I shall never forget the 
indescribable expression of her countenance when I told her that I had 
had no food since morning.’ In the Narrative, Douglass wrote that ‘My 
father was my master.’ Ten years later he said his father might have 
been a mulatto. In other words, as Henry Louis Gates put it, Douglass 
‘completely diminished the whiteness and the masterness of his father 
over ten years’. In his 1854 essay ‘The Claims of the Negro, 
Ethnologically Considered’, Douglass stated baldly that ‘intellect is 
uniformly derived from the maternal side.’

Blight also highlights Douglass’s account in the Narrative of his 
two-hour battle with the ‘slave breaker’ Edward Covey as the most 
significant example of his self-mythologising. On Covey’s dilapidated 
farmstead, Blight writes, ‘Ishmael found his Ahab, the ultimate tyrant 
whose obsessions could never be tamed.’ But in trying to break the 
slave, Covey himself was broken. ‘I felt as I never felt before,’ 
Douglass wrote.

It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven 
of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold 
defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might 
remain a slave in form, the day had passed for ever when I could be a 
slave in fact … the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must 
also succeed in killing me.

Blight sees this section in the book as representing the height of 
Douglass’s literary brilliance, constructing a story ‘he would one day 
make almost as immortal as Herman Melville’s whaling ship’. Slavery set 
out to emasculate the black man and here Douglass restored himself to 
manhood.

This was part and parcel with his larger project, which was to confound 
the stereotypes held by white Americans about their black compatriots. 
Even Abraham Lincoln agreed that ‘not a single man of [the black] race 
is made the equal of a single man of ours.’ The daguerreotypes of the 
statesman-like Douglass played a crucial role in complicating such 
views. But in years to come observers might see different things in that 
noble face: a wise pacifist reminiscent of Uncle Tom, the Christ-like 
protagonist of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel; a rebel leader like Nat 
Turner, whose 1831 insurrection had terrified white America.

Blight says that when Douglass looked in the mirror he saw a descendant 
of the Old Testament prophets, ‘exiled in a new Babylon’. The American 
Colonisation Society, supported by some slaveholders, had revived the 
old idea of repatriating black people to Africa. Douglass saw its 
expediency: ‘Men do not love those who remind them of their sins … and 
the mulatto child’s face is a standing accusation against him who is 
master and father to the child.’ Even when proposed in good faith, by 
Lincoln among others, colonisation was, in Douglass’s mind, a diabolical 
idea, a cowardly avoidance of America’s original sin.

The Constitution had classified a black man as three-fifths of a person. 
Like John Brown, with whom he corresponded, Douglass believed that this 
could only be atoned for, and abolition achieved, by the use of force. 
But he drew back when Brown encouraged him to join the doomed and bloody 
anti-slavery raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Nevertheless, in one of the 
most vivid sequences of his biography, Blight shows how close Douglass 
came to the gallows: after Brown’s assault on the US arsenal, Douglass’s 
name appeared in newspapers as one of the co-conspirators. When he 
learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest he fled to Canada, 
only hours before federal marshals arrived at his house. He went on to 
England, returning home in April 1860 – his legal fate still uncertain – 
after his daughter died. He was eventually cleared following a Senate 
investigation into the events at Harpers Ferry. Although he disagreed 
with Brown’s tactics, Douglass defended him years later in Life and 
Times: ‘The horrors wrought by his iron hand cannot be contemplated 
without a shudder, but it is the shudder which one feels at the 
execution of a murderer … necessity is the full justification of it to 
reason.’

In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, Douglass continued to 
advocate a violent response to the Fugitive Slave Act and to slavery 
itself, skewering pacifist abolitionists and their futile ambition to 
‘frown slave holders down’. Blight argues persuasively that Douglass’s 
manicheanism was personal and emotional – deriving from a deeply felt 
need for purgation, to be achieved by revenge on the slave-owning class. 
He hoped for an apocalyptic civil war and feared that a compromise would 
be reached with the Southern secessionists before the bloodletting could 
begin. Once the war began, with neither side at first gaining an 
advantage, Douglass argued that the stalemate could be broken and 
victory achieved if the Union enlisted black soldiers. When that logic 
was finally embraced, Douglass became the Union’s most enthusiastic 
recruiter – his own sons were signed up. He hailed Lincoln’s 
Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 as the ‘greatest event of 
the century’.

After the death of Anna Murray, in 1882, he married Helen Pitts, a white 
woman twenty years his junior. Some black critics attributed his new 
marriage to self-loathing. (Blight’s admiration for his subject is 
tempered only when he notes that Douglass argued the case for black 
enfranchisement by contrasting blacks’ virtues with the unworthiness of 
the drunken Irish American electorate; he thought blacks far more 
deserving of acceptance than Native Americans.) Douglass courted and 
campaigned for the Republican Party, hoping to secure a position in 
future administrations, and was rewarded with posts as US marshal of the 
District of Columbia and then as US minister to Haiti. Into his late 
seventies, Douglass continued with speaking commitments that would have 
taxed a much younger man. His final tours, his voice cracking under the 
strain, were fuelled by vanity, but also by the necessity of providing 
financial assistance to members of his extended family.

In old age he returned to his former plantation. Calling on his former 
slave master, who was close to death, Douglass found himself holding 
Auld’s hand ‘and in friendly conversation with him in a sort of final 
settlement’. But he remained vehemently opposed to the romanticism of 
the ‘lost cause’ and the myth of the South as an antebellum Eden. To the 
assertion recently made by John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, 
that Robert E. Lee was an ‘honourable man’, and the Civil War a 
gentlemen’s disagreement, Douglass would counter that the ‘bombastic 
laudation’ and the ‘nauseating flatteries’ of the ‘rebel chief’ cannot 
distract from the fact that Lee ‘was a traitor and can be made nothing 
else.’



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