American Studies in the History Department at Yale University. I first encountered Professor Blight through his interviews in the PBS series called Africans in America in the late 1990s. Later, I read his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a spectacular analysis of the post-Civil War negotiations around race in America and the failure of what the Civil War could have done for the nation. I was so taken by his meticulous research in the area and how closely he had investigated Lincoln, Douglass, and so many other historical figures that I was not surprised to see Frederick Douglass published in 2018 and have been eager to read it ever since.
It is a tome of a book, a good 764 pages, but please do not be discouraged. It is truly beautifully researched and written. And you do not have to take my word for it either. The book was reviewed exceedingly well by well-known historians and received great accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2019.
From the very first chapter, Blight offers us a portrait of Douglass as an effective speaker because of “his charisma, his passion, rhetorical skill, his authenticity as a former slave, and his persuasive powers,” but he also makes it clear that Douglass is a truth teller, unafraid to speak truth to power. The narrative begins with the then world famous abolitionist, Douglass, speaking at the unveiling of the monument to Lincoln and the emancipated slave in Washington, DC, in 1876. The unveiling was done by President Grant. There were many dignitaries and a large crowd in attendance. Blight recreates almost cinematically the grand scene and helps us visualize the occasion. Blight’s ability as a writer to help us see from every angle as the parade of people gathers at the event is simply wonderful to experience in reading this book.
Chapter 13, titled “The Rivers of Babylon,” describes Douglass’s famous fourth of July speech of 1852 as a masterful American Jeremiad. Blight’s own descriptive powers in this chapter soar to match Douglass’s speech as it unfolds slowly like a symphony with movements gradually rising to a crescendo. The scene comes alive and the reader can almost sense the presence of the speaker invoking the Old Testament prophets and their style hammering the ironies of the fourth of July celebrations at a time when the Fugitive Slave law has made North and South complicit in keeping the institution of slavery alive. Blight can do this because he has researched every little detail written about this speech by people in the audience in newspapers and in letters. He has researched everything about the space where the event was held and what it might be like to be there. He can help us see, hear, and imagine the shifting mood of the people in the audience with every word uttered. That kind of attention to detail is simply remarkable throughout the book.
Douglass was an orator, but he was also a journalist, autobiographer, storyteller, musician, reader, biblical scholar, politician, statesman, and great traveler. Blight makes clear that Douglass had a great penchant for irony, humor, and the dramatic in order to effectively keep his audience enthralled. Douglass’s written and spoken words are extensively analyzed by Blight as well as those of the critics from many academic disciplines who have interpreted Douglass’s work over the years. We learn how relevant his analysis of the American “soul” and its focus of “skin hierarchy” or “caste” is for us even today. We have just seen Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, and we think it is a completely new conceptual framework for understanding race in America, but Blight shows us Douglass’s use of the word long before now. We are still unpacking what human and natural rights mean for equality and freedom for all today.
I am tempted to offer more examples, but I will let you discover those yourself. Blight’s method of meticulous research in the service of historical recreation allows for the biographer to also be present in his portrayals. His passion for the subject is not hidden, but Blight is very measured in his assessment of Frederick Douglass’s power and presence, as well as his weaknesses. He never lets him off the hook easily. We learn about all the details of his complicated and expansive family life, his many friendships with intellectual women in his life, his second marriage at the age of sixty-six to a forty-six-year-old Helen Pitts, a white supporter of his work, and the various troubles arising from that relationship. Blight offers a compassionate portrayal of Douglass’s first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, who was uneducated but a free woman in Baltimore when they first met as young people. By the end of the book with Douglass’s death and his funeral eulogies, we get a wonderful portrait of the public man, the psychological man, and the private sphere of his family, his many responsibilities ,and financial pressures hidden from public view. And through it all I can’t stress enough how relevant the discussions are for us today.
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