BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, October 2018
Frederick Douglass was the most famous African-American of the 19th century, and his life story continues to inspire people around the world. An escaped slave who fled brutal treatment, he became a radical abolitionist, world-renowned author of three classic autobiographies, a noted journalist and editor, a public intellectual, one of the greatest orators of his time and a prominent government official. Yale historian David W. Blight brilliantly captures this legendary figure and his times in the magnificent Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, one of the best biographies of recent years. Blight’s portrait of Douglass is engrossing, moving, nuanced, frightening—and certainly thought-provoking.
Douglass is a complex figure, and he lived in a transformative time—from 1818 until 1895. His slave owner’s wife taught him to read before he escaped as a young man, and the only weapon he had against racism were words, both written and spoken. Extremely intelligent and ambitious, he thrilled and challenged audiences throughout the country and abroad with his oft-eloquent words. He frequently drew on his study of the Bible and was an Old Testament-like prophet himself, decrying the actions of not only slave owners but also other abolitionists with whom he disagreed. Douglass was both secular and religious, an advocate of self-reliance, deeply moralistic and yet pragmatic, a philosopher of democracy and natural rights.
Douglass’ turbulent life was full of pressures and controversy at each stage. He traveled widely and was frequently away from his dysfunctional family. His first wife, Anna, was largely illiterate, but she devoted her life to him and their five children during their 43 years of marriage. The need for money was a constant concern for Douglass, both to fund his newspapers and to help support his adult sons and son-in-law.
There are generous quotations from Douglass’ passionate speeches and writings woven throughout Blight’s biography. One of the many quotes that might best sum up Douglass’ lifelong work comes from a speech he gave in 1893: “Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.”