The self-made man


Mural of Frederick Douglass, Belfast IMAGE/© Keith Ruffles licensed under Creative Commons

It is an irony of US history that the most photographed and heard American of the nineteenth century, according to his latest biographer David W. Blight, was the former slave and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Today his fame is widespread enough for the historically challenged Donald Trump to commend him for “doing a good job”. Blight, a professor at Yale University and distinguished historian of abolition and the Civil War, has written a deeply sympathetic biography of this extraordinary African American leader that brings to life his magnificent oratory. The author of a brilliant intellectual history, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War (1989), and accomplished editor of Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Blight has lived with his subject for decades, and his mastery of all things Douglass is evident on each page.

Douglass himself was aware of the power of his remarkable life story, his ascent from fugitive slave to statesman. His slave narrative became, the literary scholar William Andrews has noted, “the great enabling text” of early African American autobiography, as many former slaves put pen to paper after the runaway success of Douglass’s book (pun intended). As Blight puts it, Douglass’s “great indictment of slavery came first and foremost from the accumulated injury of his own story”. Slave narratives comprised some of the most popular literature of their day and were the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s international bestselling anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The power of black autobiographical writing has persisted in our times, as we have seen in the global success of Michelle Obama’s Becoming (reviewed in the TLS, February 8). Blight adeptly leans on the self-image Douglass sought to construct in the three iterations of his autobiography, his numerous speeches and editorials, writing what he calls “the biography of a voice”. He also sheds light on Douglass’s controversial personal life.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (Douglass renamed himself in freedom) was born a slave on the eastern shore of the border Southern state, Maryland, in 1818. Douglass himself was uncertain of both his date of birth and the identity of his white father. His most vivid memory of his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey, was her miles-long journey to see him at night for a few hours: she would then slip away in order to be back in time for work as a field hand at a neighbouring plantation before daybreak. Douglass’s enslaved grandmother, Betsy Bailey, looked after him before he was deposited at the doorstep of his master’s house at the age of seven. Such was the genealogy of America’s most famous black man of the nineteenth century, enslaved as were more than 90 per cent of the African American population before the Civil War.

Douglass experienced Southern slavery in all its varieties, rural and urban, as an abused field hand and a favoured house slave. His lucky break came when he was sent to live with the Auld family in Baltimore. There he learnt how to read from Sophia Auld, until her husband put a stop to it. But he continued to educate himself; literacy represented a “pathway from slavery to freedom”. Douglass acquired a copy of The Columbian Orator, which contained famous orations from Cicero to anti-slavery British Parliamentarians like Charles James Fox. As Blight felicitously notes, this was the same book that the self-taught Abraham Lincoln studied as a boy and it provided Douglass with “a vocabulary of liberation”. Douglass’s luck ran out when he was hired to Edward Covey, a notorious “slave breaker”. His violent showdown with Covey, when he successfully prevented the latter from whipping him, revived his “own sense of manhood”.

After a failed attempt to escape with a group of slaves, Douglass was sent back to Baltimore. Here he learnt the trade of a ship caulker but resented having to hand over most of his wages to the Aulds, calling it the “right of the robber”. He also became active in black fraternal organizations and the black Church, and met his future wife, the freeborn Anna Murray, who helped him to escape slavery. With the borrowed papers and clothes of a free black sailor, Douglass boarded a train to New York and freedom at the age of twenty. In later life, one of his most popular speeches was “Self-Made Men”, but the black abolitionist underground, which stretched from Baltimore’s free black community to New York City and New Bedford, Massachusetts, known as “the fugitive’s Gibraltar”, where he and Anna eventually settled, made possible his escape from slavery. It was during his time there that he adopted the surname Douglass, from Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake, adding a distinctive extra “s”. He became an avid reader of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator of Boston, and soon attracted attention for his extraordinary lectures on slavery and his remarkable escape.

Times Literary Supplement for more

Comments are closed.