This long and thorough biography of the incomparable Frederick Douglass has been my companion for some weeks now. It has been inspirational to hear about his strength in the face of the great turmoil of his life. His story of escaping slavery and becoming an iconic speaker who drew thousands to hear him is endlessly fascinating.
Recently I read a review of a different book that brought to mind questions about Frederick Douglass. The review is by Julie Lythcott-Haims in the November 24 NYT and begins with the question “How do you instill enough self-love in your children that it will buoy them when racial hatred threatens to pull them under? This is the challenge for parents of black children, and the aim of “Breathe: A Letter to my Sons” by Imani Perry.” How was it that Frederick Douglass, a victim of the oppression employed by slaveholders to keep people in bondage, physically escaped, and was able to make himself into a brilliant thinker, orator, and writer? Even having read this long biography, I can’t imagine an answer to that question.
This book describes both the public life of those eventful years and Douglass’s personal life. The abolitionists, John Brown, Douglass’s connection to Lincoln, the post-war jubilation, the rise of the Lost Cause view of the war, and the rise of lynching and Jim Crow tell the story of his life. His personal life is not neglected; his wife who could not read, the women who were his partners in his work, his problematic children, the sorrows of the many deaths of grandchildren, and his happy second marriage to a younger woman are recounted.
There are a few tangential matters I want to remember. First, he lived for some decades in a house on a hill in Anacostia, Washington, DC. It is called Cedar Hill and is open to the public.
And another: Douglass was taken to Wye plantation in Maryland when he was seven or eight years old. This plantation has been owned since the 1650s by the Lloyd family and is currently owned by Richard Tilghman, the eleventh generation of that family. Having read three novels that focus on a plantation very much like that one by Christopher Tilghman, who teaches at UVa, I have looked for a connection between the author and the owner but have been unable to find one. One of those novels, The Right-Hand Shore, is particularly poignant on the unending evil that slavery caused.
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 888 pages (I listened to the audiobook). It is available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.