Visions Beyond Slavery

By , Keith Henderson is the Monitor's editorial page editor.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS'S life is much more than the account of a remarkable ascent from slavery to world renown. The story of this eloquent, 19th-century antislavery crusader is as integral, in its way, to the development of the American nation as any chronicle of presidents or statesmen. Douglass helped open a chapter of United States social history that is still being written. To read this exhaustive, beautifully detailed biography of Douglass and his life-long quest for justice and equality, regardless of race, is to see today's controversies over race - the debate over affirmative action and racial quotas - in a longer and truer perspective.

William McFeely digs into every facet of Douglass's life - his painful, yet strangely affectionate relationship with the Auld family that once owned him, his role in the internecine battles that fractured the abolitionist movement, and his stint as US consul in the tortured black republic of Haiti. These episodes, in themselves, make a gripping story. But what holds a reader even more is the realization that this life drama is still being played out - that the nation, even after the civil-rights advances of the 1960s, is still trying to resolve the tensions of color and race that so consumed Douglass.

In the last great speech of his life, delivered before a Washington, D.C., audience in 1895, the tireless orator attacked the increasing lynchings of black men in the South. The men summarily executed by mobs were almost invariably accused of raping white women. Douglass explained that in the days before emancipation, the all-purpose excuse for brutality against blacks was fear of a slave rebellion. During Reconstruction, it was fear of dominance by newly enfranchised freedmen. Now, he sarcastically noted, it was sexual assault. Why wasn't that used before? he asked.

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His point was obvious. In each period, the goal behind lynchings and whippings was the same: to keep blacks in their old, subservient place. At the end of his life, Douglass was being forced to the hard conclusion that a terrorist campaign in the South and political acquiescence in the North were combining to ensure that the promises of emancipation and enfranchisement would not be realized. Southern blacks who challenged white supremacy in the commercial or political realms were candidates for the rope.

Pragmatic people accepted this sad trend, but Douglass had lived by the ideal of equality, and he clung to it even as a nation he'd come to think of as his own was setting aside that ideal.

``I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me,'' Douglass told his listeners in Washington that day. ``He is a wiser man than I am, who can tell how low the moral sentiment of this republic may yet fall ....''

This was a different tone from earlier years. Douglass had seen the great victories of emancipation and the 15th Amendment, giving black males the vote. Even before the Civil War, McFeely points out, the radical black abolitionist had concluded that the American political process, resting on the Constitution, could be used to better the lot of African-Americans.

Founding his own abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., Douglass championed candidates of the Republican Party - a partisan loyalty he never let go of, even though the GOP never repaid him with the recognition and high appointive office he craved.

Douglass's was a life of profound tensions. ``To be sure,'' writes McFeely, ``his whole public life had been based on the conviction that black people must stand together politically. But he was also convinced, paradoxically, that race must not be acknowledged as affecting citizenship; America, oblivious to white and black, must be one.''

In his personal life, as in politics, color pursued Douglass, for all his determination to prove its irrelevance to merit and worth. His first wife, who had followed him North after his escape from bondage in Maryland and who remained illiterate through her life, could not share his passion for letters and public notoriety. His children could never attain the standing and accomplishment their high-achieving father would have liked. The gulf between them - and between Douglass and all working-class former slaves - widened.

His constant antislavery lecturing thrust Douglass into white society. He had long, close relationships with white, feminist intellectuals. When his wife of more than 40 years, Anna, died, he married a white woman - quickening the controversy that was never far behind him.

In his 1895 valedictory, he asserted that the then-current term, ``the Negro problem,'' was mistaken. As McFeely paraphrases Douglass, ``This thinking had to end. The problem was the nation's problem; if it could not be solved, the nation was doomed.''

The problem is not yet solved.

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