“Frederick Douglass: A Prophet of Freedom”

January 21, 2019

Frederick Douglass was an incredible and important figure in American history. This man who was a slave-turned-preacher, spoke with a conviction that turned the hearts of many. David Blight, in his book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, traces his life and this aspect of his distinguished voice calling out for the freedom of all men. Here is an interview from Blight, giving insight into his one-of-a-kind book:

Maina Muwara: You worked on this book for 10 years. What inspired you to want to write on Frederick Douglass? 

David Blight: I've kind of always been very interested in the life of Frederick Douglass. I did a dissertation on him in graduate school. I also wrote a book in the 1980s. It was a narrower book then my current one, but what really prompted the writing of his biography was my encounter with a private collection of Douglass manuscripts that is owned by a man named Walter Evans in Savannah, Ga. And it was a chance encounter, how we connected.

I went to Savannah in 2006 to give a talk to local teachers on Douglass's life, which I've done many times. And while I was there, my host said. “There's a local gentleman who was a collector who would like to meet you and go to lunch.” He took me over to his house, and that's when I realized that this collection was extraordinary; it was particularly a collection of family papers, family documents, family scrapbooks, and family letters. Most of what the collector had covered the last third of his life, which is the part of Douglass life that people tend not to know as well. 

MM: When did you know that you needed to embark on the project?

DB: I didn’t commit right away. It took me some time to muster the courage, but it was encountering that collection that made me commit to tell the story of Douglass. To be clear it, was 10 years on and off again in doing this project. I wrote another book in that period on a different topic. Douglass had a big life, long, complicated life. Through it all, I've never lost my interest in him. If anything, it only deepened. He was an extraordinary person and a genius with words. 

MM: I agree he was a genius with words and speech. Where did that come from?

DB: The Bible; he learned how to read by reading the Bible. And a lot of his thought process came from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. 

MM: Why do you think some people find the life of Douglass so complicated? 

DB: Well, part of it is because he's not static. You can't put him into boxes and keep him there. He changes over time in his ideas, his ideology, and his strategies as an activist. Douglass was a very different kind of thinker, which makes him misunderstood to some people. 

MM: Why do you think some people misunderstood where he landed when it came to race? 

DB: He goes through many transformations, and that may be one of the reasons people sometimes think they misunderstand him. While he was a ferocious critic of American racism, few have matched him when it comes to dealing with racism in America. He was very much what we would call an integrationist. He kept trying to strive to conquer the problem of race. So there have been people who didn't think he was sufficiently radical or black nationalist enough. He was a little bit like Abraham Lincoln in that sense. Everybody kind of makes up their Lincoln, meaning that people make up in their minds what they want Douglass to be.

MM: What was slave life like for Frederick Douglass?

DB: Well, again, it was several different things which made his life unique. He spent about 11 of those 20 years on the Maryland eastern shore, where he was born. He stayed there until he was about seven years old as a child slave. I deal with that in the first three or four chapters of the book, but then he goes to Baltimore and spends nearly nine years of his 20 years as a slave in a city and a great ocean port like Baltimore. He became an urban slave, which is where he learned to read. He also got involved in the vibrant black community of Baltimore. His life as a slave covered the range of rural and urban slave life. 

MM: What was life like for him in the city of Baltimore, and why was the city so influential in his life? 

DB: Baltimore had about 130,000 people who lived in the city at the time, however, only 3,000 of them were slaves. About 17,000 of them were free. Baltimore was a pretty vibrant community of churches, debating societies, and fraternal orders, so he lived in and among the free black community at the time. He was exposed to this urban world of possibility and the world that came into Baltimore's harbor, which is where he worked. Douglass experienced a great deal of development, intellectually and emotionally, while he was in Baltimore.

MM: What were Douglass’s concerns about slavery mentally? 

DB: I call his childhood a childhood of extremes because it's a term he used. And that is really what his youth was like. He internalized what slavery could do to a human being. He also experienced the physical damage that slavery could do to a human being. When he wrote about it later, his analysis was about as good as anyone ever delivered. In the 19th century, he would argue many times that his greatest fear about slavery was what it might do to his mind, much less what it would do to his body. He was afraid of slavery's possible damage or impact on his mind. He would always say things like, “You know, they can do what they wished to my body, but I don't want them to take my mind.” 

MM: Douglass is characterized as a deeply spiritual man. In the book, you compare him to the prophet Jeremiah. Why? 

DB: Douglass’s two favorite prophets were Isaiah and Jeremiah. He loved Jeremiah in the sense that, as Jeremiah said in chapter one of the book, he actually heard the voice of God. Douglass loved knowing that Jeremiah heard from God and that God put words in his mouth, which is what Douglass wanted God to do for him. That was Douglass’s model for what a prophetic voice could do if God were behind someone. I was very careful about using that word “prophet.” It took me some time to even put the word “prophet” in the book, because it’s such a big and extraordinary word. 

MM: So why the need to tie Douglass to the word “prophet?” 

DB: I've always been aware of Douglass’s spirituality, how deeply steeped he was in the Bible. And I trace in the book the ways in which he came to love God and the Bible. After doing extensive research on him and talking with my theological friends, I decided that I had to put the word “prophet” in the book, because Douglass was a modern-day prophet in his time.

The more I worked on Douglass, the more I kept realizing how extraordinary his voice was in a country that desperately needed to hear what he was saying. A prophet is that person who can find the words and the sentences, the paragraphs, the language at times that are just higher than the rest of us can achieve. That’s the person who can find the language to explain a terrible event or a disaster, a catastrophe or a triumph in history, time, or a great problem. Whereas, the rest of us can't quite do that. Douglass had that capacity. 

MM: You explain in the book that Douglass loved going to church. 

DB: Yes, he did while he was a slave. He was a part of three churches. Two black churches, and one white church. Once again, he loved reading the Bible out loud, especially the Old Testament. He may not have understood some of the stories in the Old Testament, but he loved reading the Bible. During his slave years he felt called to be a preacher. He preached his first sermon when he was 20 years old. 

MM: Douglass felt like America at the time had turned it’s back on God. Why did he think that?

DB: He was troubled at how America approached slavery, which made him think that America had turned its back on God. Douglass used to say things like, “If slavery can be right, then nothing can be wrong. If slavery can be right, than the devil is right.”