David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom

by Chris Mack

April 9, 2022

My interest in Frederick Douglass was kindled about twenty years ago, on the second Saturday of the month, while drinking beer and discussing books with my friends.  During a break, as often happened before today’s toxicity made such discussions too fraught to attempt, I was talking politics. On the subject of affirmative action and the general state of society I was told that Frederick Douglass was the proof and exemplar for why affirmative action should be abolished, why welfare encouraged sloth and dependency, why minorities crying for their rights were just whiners looking for a free ride.  “If Frederick Douglass could rise from slavery, overcome incredible obstacles, teach himself to read and write, and become one of the greatest orators of his age, then complaints from today’s minorities are nothing but excuses for the inferiority of their culture and their unwillingness to embrace the self-made man ethic that their own Frederick Douglass preached.”

To refute the absurdity of the logic in that remark was as easy as it was fruitless.  But somehow, as well, I intuited that the Douglass used at the center of the argument represented an abuse of history.  My problem, however, was my ignorance.  I knew the story of Frederick Douglass in the way that most school children know that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree – myth taught as history that we all hope is not too far from the truth, but fear it is.  At that moment a small seed was planted in my brain – I would learn who Frederick Douglass really was.

I bought the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, plus some collected speeches, and placed them on my bookshelf.  And so they sat, collecting dust, being dusted, and waiting.  The seed had not germinated, but neither had it died.

Then recently two events woke the idea from dormancy.  David W. Blight won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for his biography Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, and the Black Lives Matter movement awakened my consciousness of the legacy of slavery in America and my role, for good or bad, in its resolution.  I determined that this was my chance to learn about Frederick Douglass, his important role in American history, and how his legacy might influence me personally.

And so I sit, twenty years later, on the second Saturday of the month, discussing this book with my friends.  Blight’s biography is worthy of the praise and accolades it has garnered, excellent in its execution of both the depth and breadth of a long and storied life.  And storied Douglass’s life is, first of all through Douglass’s own words: three autobiographies, years of newspaper pieces, and innumerable speeches.  Still Blight is able to reveal much more of the complete Douglass than Douglass himself was willing to reveal, which makes Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom a welcome fulfillment to my 20-year-old pledge.

I learned that Douglass was a self-made man who preached self-reliance, but not in the childish sense that was alluded to me 20 years ago.  Douglass escaped slavery and taught himself to be a great orator through extraordinary and unrelenting effort.  But he also received plenty of help, was extremely lucky at many crucial junctures in his life, and was undoubtedly a natural genius of word and voice.  His mantra of self-reliance always began by requiring a foundation of fair treatment and ended with a call to remove all discriminatory barriers to success.  Douglass was a radical and a revolutionary; he can be used as a model in support of conservative ideology only though incredible bouts of selective historical amnesia.

I was born nearly 150 years after Frederick Baily, but his words sound surprisingly modern to me.  As I read more and more of his speeches, I recognized echoes of his words in the mouths of Malcom X and today’s Black Lives Matter protesters.  Douglass could easily have been the inspiration for the 1619 Project, and he often referred to 1619 as the date of America’s original sin.  His words ring with truth and moral clarity even today.

The irony is not lost on me that I am called upon today to give a speech about one of the greatest orators in American history.  So it is both fitting and wise that I fall back on Douglass’s own words, this from his famous “Fourth of July” speech from 1852.  After exposing the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom while four million men, women, and children were held as slaves in the South, with collusion from the North, Douglass held forth with righteous indignation.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

I cannot read these words without being inspired, without thinking that I must do more with my life to right the historic wrongs that slavery wrought and that still permeate American society.  And that is why Frederick Douglass is worth remembering and reading today.



Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2022, Chris Mack.

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