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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom Paperback – January 7, 2020
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"Absorbing and even moving . . . Mr. Blight displays his lifelong interest in Douglass on almost every page, and his own voice is active and eloquent throughout the narrative. It is a book that speaks to our own time as well as Douglass’s. . . . A brilliant book.” -- John Stauffer, The Wall Street Journal
“The first major biography of Douglass in nearly three decades. . . . Blight isn’t looking to overturn our understanding of Douglass, whose courage and achievements were unequivocal, but to complicate it — a measure by which this ambitious and empathetic biography resoundingly succeeds.” -- Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Extraordinary. . . . Blight has certainly written, in the book’s texture and density and narrative flow—one violent and provocative incident arriving right after another—a great American biography." -- Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“A consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come.” -- Eric Foner, The Nation
“A stunning achievement. Blight captures an icon in full humanity. From riveting drama in slavery and Civil War, his Douglass rises into clairvoyant genius on the blinkered centrality of race in our struggle for freedom.” -- Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of America in the King Years
“Extraordinary. . . . In Blight’s pages, [Douglass’s] voice again rings out loud and clear, melancholy and triumphant — still prophesying, still agitating, still calling us to action.” -- Adam Goodheart, The Washington Post
“David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century. . . . Magisterial.” -- Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., The Boston Globe
About the Author
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The first period was slavery. Frederick Bailey, Douglass's birth name, was given up by his grandmother at the tender age of six when he was left at the plantation of Aaron Anthony. His mother was "rented" out as a day laborer to another plantation and so the boy had little to no contact with her. She died by the time he was eight years old. Later, he was "given" to the brother of his master who lived in Baltimore. The author is unsparing in his descriptions of enslavement: Frederick was beaten, starved, lonely, impoverished and humiliated. A major watershed occurred when his master's wife taught the boy to read. Her furious husband forbade her from teaching him anymore and burned the prized books of the child. Nevertheless, Frederick's mind was opened to a new world. He was influenced by others to study particularly the Old Testament which provided him inspiration in the words of the prophets and the many illusions and metaphors about slavery and freedom. Was it adolescent rebellion or his new found literacy that inspired Frederick to flee North? Aided by a freedwoman who later became his wife, Frederick escaped on the Underground Railroad. Fearing recapture, he changed his surname to Douglass.
The second phase of Douglass's life was preaching for abolition. He traveled throughout the United States, as well as Britain, Ireland Scotland and Canada. Douglass was an ardent believer in the need to free all blacks. He delivered thousands of passionate orations; part religious, part personal, but always entertaining and inspiring. He related incidents from his own enslavement and quoted frequently from the Old Testament. He became world renowned and crossed paths with important figures including John Brown, who hoped Douglass would join him in the Harper's Ferry raid and Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant and Hayes. Throughout the Civil War, Douglass used his fiery speeches to recruit blacks to fight for the Union. (Three of his own sons fought in the War.) His speeches on "Peace time Abolition" focused on the need to give black men the vote and when that was achieved, he railed against the rampant violence against blacks. During Reconstruction there were wholesale lynchings and murders of blacks. His relentless travels and public speaking engagements took a toll on his family, his pocket book and his health.
Family relations was the third essential factor in Douglass's life. Having had no family as a child and unsure of the identity of his father, Douglass put a high premium on being a father and a provider. But, his long and frequent absences created great strain on his wife Anna and their five children who lived into adulthood. Anna was illiterate and it remains a mystery why Douglass did not teach her to read. Douglass strived to be both father and provider, but his long absences eroded both roles. Though he claimed to be a "self-made man", Douglass relied heavily on financial assistance from abolitionists at home and abroad. He also sought the emotional, intellectual and perhaps physical support from several white women, some of whom lived for extended periods in the Douglass home. After Anna died, he married one of these white women causing further strain with his children.
Blight's book is well referenced, but rather long. There are times when it is repetitive and when the author uses "grandiose" language, perhaps to mimic Douglass's style. Sadly, the author lacks the power, passion and poetry of Frederick Douglass. The author also occasionally attempts to psychoanalyze Douglass which is a bit of a stretch. Despite these flaws, this book provides a thorough examination of a man who made and is a seminal part of American history.
You leave this meticulously researched biography feeling you have lived Douglass' life alongside him., from beginning to end. You understand the challenges he has faced, the people who helped him along the way, and the people whose lives he changed. You marvel at his rhetorical and writing skills and the mind, heart and soul which drove and nurtured them.
You become deeply aware of his complexity, the challenge of his family relationships, the internal feuds and the external ones too, the depth of his providential belief, combined with his pragmatism. But above all there is his unrelenting courage and dedication to telling the truth about slavery and its legacy while never giving up hope and the demand for self reliance. It is hard to imagine anyone traveling as much at a time travel was not easy, especially for a black man and giving so many talks and writing so much as Douglass did.
David Blight's honest telling of Douglass' life reveals misjudgments and some petty grievances. We see Douglass as a human being, not perfect. But we see him much more as a giant, unwavering in his conviction in the demonic quality of slavery and the need to respect the dignity of every human being, regardless of color. I believe David Blight has in a way entered Douglass' mind and heart as well as another human being can. He has of course been greatly helped by Douglass' three autobiographies but he goes beyond that to offer reasoned but never over reaching conclusions on his state of mind, his motivations and concerns.
Many words have been offered by esteemed historians in praise of Blight's work. "Magisterial", "comprehensive", "incandescent", "elegantly written", "a stunning achievement", "exceeds high expectations". I embrace them all. But I would add one more, in capital letters: "INSPIRATIONAL".
Inspirational in Douglass' unceasing (to the week of his death) and uncompromising call for the end of discrimination against blacks and allowing them and everyone the Freedom that everyone cherishes and deserves.
Inspirational, too, in the depth of caring and scholarship and sensitive and literate interpretation and narration which David Blight has brought to this work, which as he writes in the Acknowledgement, in many ways represents the product of his "entire professional career".
Thank you Frederick Douglass; thank you David Blight.
Top international reviews
Contrary to some other biographers M.Blight doesn't fall in the 'context trap' when other authors can go in to deep, then we lose contact with the main subject and the tempo is lost as well. Definitely not here.
Up there with the best Biographies!!!
This book is very well written and captivating, I highly recommend it. Thank you to the author for introducing me to this truly remarkable man!