edited.DavidBlightFrederickDouglassTalk_HeberGuerra-RecinosBy Lori Wysong

News Editor

Frederick Douglass biographer David Blight visited Washington College to discuss his research last Thursday, his fourth visit in the last two decades. 

This time, Blight was available for a question-and-answer session on his new book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Sitting down with Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart, Blight talked about all things Douglass. 

“David was one of the very first speakers that the Starr Center ever hosted,” Goodheart said.

According to the WC website, the Starr Center “explores the American experience in all its diversity and complexity, seeks creative approaches to illuminating the past, and inspires thoughtful conversation informed by history.”

In the conversation Blight and Goodheart shared, some of the more obscure parts of Douglass’ life were touched upon, particularly his complex relationship with the Eastern Shore. 

“He wrote so much and so beautifully about his childhood,” Blight said. “There’s so much pain in that memory. On the other hand, it’s where he’s from.”

Douglass, born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, received an honorary degree from WC a year ago, during Blight’s last visit. As an adolescent, Douglass was transferred from Wye plantation to enslavement at a house in Baltimore. 

“Maryland, especially Baltimore, has everything to do with how Douglass became Douglass,” Blight said, discussing Douglass’ development as a writer and orator. 

Once in Baltimore, Douglass had access to a vibrant free-black community.  He learned to read and write, attended churches, and practiced preaching and giving speeches. 

“He doesn’t walk out of slavery a born orator,” Blight said. “He wasn’t as self-made as either he portrayed himself or as we sometimes portray it.”

“Douglass, I think, is one of those people who is more honored than understood,” Goodheart said. 

Douglass is most known for his advocacy for abolition, and his earliest autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Blight and Goodheart discussed aspects of his personal life that are not as widely known, in particular, his relationship to his family and his first wife, Anna.

“The women in his life were so influential and important,” Goodheart said. 

Douglass spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, and was “a feminist about political rights and even economic rights,” according to Blight. 

However, Blight described Anna Douglass as a “thoroughgoing domestic woman” who “remained a non-reader and non-writer the rest of her life.”

While Frederick Douglass’ wife rarely traveled with him or wished to be involved in his public career, Blight said that Douglass  “learned how to value women’s minds.”

Blight spoke of other complex familiar relations that were strained by slavery and 19th-century race relations. Many of Douglass’ sisters and brothers were sold away from him, and because his unknown father was a white man, he most likely had white half-siblings as well. 

“He had reunions with his black siblings. He may have had with his white siblings, but he didn’t even know,” Blight said. 

Douglass spent his early career fighting for abolition, but Blight said in his biography of Douglass, he tried to address “What happens to the old radical outsider when his cause wins?”

Goodheart compared post-Civil War Reconstruction to the literal rebuilding of a house and said there was an option to rebuild it in exactly in the same image, or to build a completely new structure with different materials. 

Building upon that metaphor, Blight said “the object of his generation was to preserve that recreation…He wanted a bigger cast in the construction crew.”

Goodheart ended the conversation by asking how the present-day environment influenced Blight’s writing of the past. 

“The past and present are always colliding,” Blight said. “The past is always in our present and the present is always in our past.”

The Elm

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