Reading Notes: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Cover of bio

I am halfway through this biography now, so don’t spoil the ending for me ;).

I have been tempted to comment often as I read, even if I fear I will reveal gaps in my knowledge despite my efforts to learn more. Still, here are a few thoughts, and forgive me for where I fall short in understanding:

  • This biography, at least thus far, has given me a better education on the build-up to the American Civil War than anything else I have encountered. In fairness, I have never been eager to read about any war, so I haven’t encountered as much as others may have. But I recall watching most of Ken Burns’ famous documentary, many years ago. Indeed, if I could stomach it, I would be curious to watch at least parts of it again after I finish this biography. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that I will feel the documentary misses some insights revealed in this book.
  • I take comfort in the internecine battles within the abolitionist movement. (I finally get to use the word internecine, which means “referring to conflict within an organization.”) This gives me comfort because I witnessed similar in-fighting among progressive people three years ago that arguably undermined our ability to stop cruel people from taking power. It’s comforting because a) such divisions are not some modern failure in vision but part of the history of political change, and b) slavery eventually became illegal in this country despite those disagreements. It is reasonable to observe that we still cannot celebrate the elimination of all forms of slavery or the advent of an egalitarian society, but it is a comfort nonetheless to point to one good outcome in the face of daunting odds and divided allies.
  • This will sound odd, but as I read about the in-fighting among abolitionists and the way pro-slavery monsters verbally and physically attacked abolitionists, including Douglass, I keep picturing it all unfolding on Twitter. The violence in words and actions endemic to social media echo what took place then in newspapers, paper pamphlets, public lectures, and really long letters.

All of which leads me back to my sense that too little has changed since the 19th Century. Or perhaps, that we continue to battle the same battles as we did then.

Here’s a tantalizing quote to end on:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both more and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand” (Frederick Douglass as quoted by Blight, p.286).

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