Book Review—Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

ECW welcomes back guest author Nathan Varnold.

Understanding the life of the most famous and most outspoken black abolitionist in American history is no easy task, but David W. Blight has spent most of his career attempting to simplify a complicated subject. His latest publication, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, is a testament to his twenty-plus year career devoted to understanding Frederick Douglass; the man, the words, the historical figure. It does not disappoint. Historians have access to Douglass’s life works – speeches, writings, letters, and his autobiographies – but those same historians struggle to define him. Blight summarized the difficulties he faced in a book talk at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. Whenever the renowned author thought he had a firm idea of Douglass, a new letter or article would surface and pull Douglass from his grasp. Think of holding an ice cube. You have a firm grip on the cube only to watch it melt and drip through your fingers. This biography is Blight’s attempt to fully and deeply understand Frederick Douglass.

Douglass is initially introduced as Frederick Bailey, an enslaved black born in Talbot County, Maryland. Rather quickly Blight shows the transformation of Bailey, an American slave, into Douglass, a freedman. Even though an evolution takes place, Frederick Douglass remained haunted, yet inspired, by Bailey. Bailey’s life fueled the black abolitionist for answers but reminded him that some answers will escape him, some questions cannot be answered. Blight makes this an important facet. Blight sees this plight for answers instrumental in Douglass’s evolution. The freedman searches for meaningful answers and the discovery of truth. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one such speech used by Blight to show Douglass’s constant struggle for truth and answers. Do black Americans have a place in American history and on the American continent? What meaning does independence have on black Americans? These questions tackle the past, present, and the future of black lives in the United States. For Douglass, the answers to these questions become central to equality, protection, participation, and advancement. Autobiographies offered another platform for Douglass to dispel myths, answer questions, and find truth.

The first few chapters read as a literary analysis and an overview of Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A conscious decision to begin with the 1845 autobiography allowed Blight an easy introduction to the starting point for this biography’s research. For the first-time, Douglass introduced the complexities of his experience as an American slave in print. He existed as a human within a society, within an institution, that denied all aspects of humanity to an enslaved race. Blight showed how Douglass challenged the perception of humanity by giving the enslaved individual human fears, human emotions, and human characteristics; something more than a name on a property list. The autobiography challenged societal norms and gave Douglass his very first national platform. Blight’s literary analysis recounts a journey for answers and closure to a past, a past Douglass allowed no one to forget. He carried his past with him like a talisman–to assault the minds of the American public.

Frederick Douglass

To assault typically denotes violence. It is an aggressive term, but then again Douglass proved an aggressive and an unrelenting individual through words. Blight used the verb not to illustrate Douglass as a violent human but to justify the subtitle of his biography: Prophet of Freedom. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, whom Blight uses extensively in his work, stated “the prophet is a human” who “employs notes one octave too high for our ear…an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”[1] Heschel tells us that prophets are not heard in the moment. Instead, prophets incept an idea into the minds of listeners. These ideas slowly eat away at the subconscious of the individual and promote action. Therefore, words spoken by Douglass remain an everlasting lesson. Lessons for the present and lessons for the future. Blight’s use of Heschel becomes key to understanding the religiosity of Frederick Douglass and knowing the label, Prophet of Freedom.

Christianity, millennialism, and the Bible became central to Douglass’s life and central to the idea of a Prophet. In fact, the black abolitionist’s religiosity is one of Blight’s themes for this book. Blight connected Douglass with Moses. Both individuals argued against forced labor and helped bring freedom to an enslaved population. Douglass’s beliefs allowed him to attack the southern misconceptions of Christianity and the Bible through his understanding of the Old Testament as a marker for natural law. Natural law stood as the basic premise for equality to all people, not ordained to only one race. Blight specializes in the Civil War Era and memory studies. His understanding of religious texts and theology strengthened his innate ability to simplify a complicated historical figure, connect Douglass to a larger audience, and justify the use of Prophet.

Other themes include Douglass’s autobiographies, his individual evolution, the relationship between his public and private lives, and Douglass’s intellect. Each theme promoted the orators constant and consistent assault upon the minds of the American public. Just as Douglass transformed as an individual, his tactics changed throughout his life. From his three autobiographies written to a specific audience, to his speeches and articles printed throughout the nation, Blight used extensive records to showcase the orator’s impact on a nation, thus lending credence to the notion of Douglass the Prophet. The nation went through a tumultuous time and Blight argues that the life of Frederick Douglass, more than any other American, tells the transformation of the United States.

Simply stated, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is worth the read. Blight’s masterful prose, use of sources, connection to his subject, and his overall knowledge offers something for everyone. From the academic to the casual reader everyone will walk away knowing that the life of Frederick Douglass was a microcosm of an entire century. Unlike other biographies that focus on a subject in the confines of an event, Blight studied, and continues to study the life of Douglass, to emphasize an era. The lessons of the past have not fully been learned. This biography is a look at the prolonged struggle for freedom and equality that continue today.

Guest Author Nathan Varnold received his MA from Colorado State University in 2016. He has worked with the National Park Service for three summers – internship with Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania in 2015, Petersburg in 2017, and a return to Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania in 2018. His true interests are political and social history, but he dabbles in military history periodically.

3 Responses to Book Review—Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

  1. In keeping with the prophet motif, would this book qualify as hagiography? Having heard Blight speak of Douglass, I am under the impression he truly loves this subject, which is common enough with a biography and makes pulling it off very tricky.

    Also, how does he deal with Douglass’ postwar political activities? What few criticisms I have read of him mostly deal with his political actions after 1865.

  2. It sounds like a moving piece of work, and Blight is a masterful writer and this work might be perfect for him. My least favorite part of Race and Reunion were his thoughts on Ambrose Bierce, because Blight is not a cynic so he does not understand him (Bierce makes perfect sense to me). Douglass though is more on Blight’s wavelength.

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