Sunday, January 23, 2011

Frederick Douglass: Man of the 19th Century

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1840

We are coming up on Black History Month (February), wherein the inestimable accomplishments of African Americans are commemorated and honored. I teach American literature, and one of the authors I teach is Frederick Douglass. My students and I will be considering the works below--I have provided links to all of them, should you have an interest.

Many of you are familiar with the image of Douglass at the bottom of this post--indeed, most of the historical reenactors impersonate Douglass as the "grand old man" of black freedom rights during the 19th century. Although Douglass continued his advocacy in the struggle for freedom until the day he died, I feel we must have a more accurate visual reflection of how Frederick Douglass looked at the time he wrote his most important works.  Below (and at right) are some additional images. He was in his late 20s when he published his most famous work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself--just a few years older than in the picture at right. His gaze is direct and haunting, and one can easily imagine this virile, resolute, steely-eyed young African American male taking on the overseer, Covey.

Douglass was in his 30s when he wrote his only piece of fiction, The Heroic Slave. This novel is Douglass's fictionalized version of the SUCCESSFUL 1841 slave revolt on the slave ship Creole, led by Madison Washington. Although Douglass uses novelistic conventions to enhance his tale (specifically, the conventions of 19th century sentimental literature), this work is fascinating to read.

I have also provided a link to take you to the Douglass papers, which are part of the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.  This site is a huge repository of Douglass's speeches, diaries, family correspondence, financial papers, and a host of other exciting materials!

Also below are links to other Douglass pieces you should take a look at--they come from this comprehensive website: The Black Past, Remembered and Reclaimed: An Online Reference Guide to African American History.

Many of you are, no doubt, familiar with 1857's "If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress." Take a look at "Men of Color, To Arms!"--written at the height of the Civil War--those of you who have seen the film Glory will probably find Douglass's words especially evocative. "The Composite Nation" iterates Douglass's commitment to all immigrant groups becoming part of the American fabric--here, he focuses on Chinese immigration. Also, look at "On Woman Suffrage"--Douglass was an early and outspoken feminist! I will be adding some additional posts so that we can reflect on the contributions made by all of us.

Just click on these links:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself

The Heroic Slave (1855)


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