Saturday, September 5, 2020

Frederick Douglass

I am reading a biography of Fredrick Douglass, "Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom," by David W. Blight.

You see a lot of articles about how we are in one of the worst eras in American history with the worst president, the most corrupt administration, and the biggest potential for a constitutional crisis. But if you look back at the 1850’s, the decade before the Civil War, I would contend that the situation then was just as bad, if not worse.

I didn’t know much at all about Frederick Douglass before I started this biography. He was a fugitive slave that learned to read and taught himself to write and become an orator. His views and opinions grew and changed over the course of the decades leading up to the Civil War. He started out as a radical abolitionist who believed the US Constitution was inherently flawed and nothing but a complete dissolution of the United States could put an end to slavery. He eventually came around to the idea that slavery could be abolished via laws and voting, but thought that one of the more radical political parties , such as the Liberty Party or the Free Soil Party, would be the way to achieve this goal. But after the Dred Scot decision and the election of James Buchanan, a Marylander sympathetic to the southern slaveholders, Douglas decided that the newly formed Republican Party, in spite of its more moderate views, held the only path to ridding the country of slavery.

It’s kind of like someone today that might start out apolitical, start to have interest in the Green Party, from there decide to work for Bernie Sanders, but eventually decide that they had to support Biden to get rid of Trump.

The surprising thing to me is how long it took for the Civil War to actually break out. There were skirmishes in Kansas starting in the mid 1850’s, and John Brown’s revolutionary rhetoric and actions as well. The nation was in complete turmoil, and even people who shrank from violence were dismayed at the path the country was taking.

I’m not even halfway through this book. It’s long, and very dense. It’s not an easy read! But it’s pretty fascinating. Sometimes it’s just difficult to try to understand a time and place where so many people had to be convinced of the inherent evil of slavery and necessity of full equality and citizenship for People of Color. The Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scot decision were especially troubling, since those laws made even free blacks feel unsafe, no matter where they lived. It was all too easy to be kidnapped and sold into slavery no matter what one’s papers might say. And Dred Scot made it appear that slavery could potentially be legal anywhere in the US. Even free blacks in the Northern States started emigrating to Canada out of fear.

It was an untenable situation, and something had to give way. Many people, Douglass included, were relieved when the Civil War finally broke out. Another interesting thing is the parts about Lincoln. He was not, initially at least, convinced that full abolition was necessary, or even possible. He held out hope for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy for almost the first two years of the war, only gradually being convinced that only full emancipation and a total destruction of the Confederacy would actually preserve the Union in any significant sense. 

Douglass knew that the end of the Civil War was only the beginning of a new phase in the fight for equal rights for POC. He probably never realized just how long and hard fought this second battle would be. We'll never know what would have happened if Lincoln had lived, but Andrew Johnson was a southerner that sympathized with the confederacy and hated Blacks.  And Douglass knew that the effects of slavery on his people could last for generations without a concerted effort to help ex-slaves learn to live as free people.

Douglass was a brillent orator and writer. He was a rock star of his day, filling hall after hall with rapturous crowds, meeting with the highest government officials, including presidents. Its surprising to me just how important and significant he was back then, and how little I knew about him before I started reading this book. Its shameful that I could have been taught about the Civil War in High School without his name ever coming up. That's a product of racism right there. We could learn about John Brown's aborted attack at Harper's Ferry and the attack at Fort Sumter, but not about the fiery speeches given by Douglass. I can look back now and see how our education was subtly twisted to keep white supremacy on top. 

I know I have a long way to go in my "re-education". Like everyone, I battle my own personal prejudices and assumptions. Reading about someone like Douglass is a start, at least. Now when he gets mentioned in passing I will know the reference and will understand its significance. I'm glad I'm taking the time to plow through this book. Its changing me, page by page.

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