Biographer explains the lessons of Frederick Douglass: 'White supremacy does not die — it revives in new forms'
Black History Month, which has just concluded, was first established as Negro History Week in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. February was chosen in particular because it contained two very important dates: Feb. 12 is Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, is celebrated as the birthday of Frederick Douglass. (Since Douglass was born in slavery, the actual date of his birth is not known for certain.)
Douglass was an American hero, whose life and struggles capture the ongoing centuries-long struggle to make American democracy truly whole and equal across the color line. He was born a slave and freed himself, before becoming a leading voice to end white-on-black chattel slavery in the United States and around the world. He witnessed a second American Revolution with the Union's decisive victory over the treasonous Southern Confederacy, a victory in which Douglass played a key role through pressuring Lincoln to allow black combat troops in the Union Army. Douglass would then see the radically democratic experiment of Reconstruction struck down and the birth of American apartheid, in the form of Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy.
What lessons does Frederick Douglass' life hold for resistance and hope in the age of Donald Trump and the fight against his racist, proto-fascist movement? How did Douglass himself maintain hope in dark times? How and why is America still fighting the political and social forces that Douglass and his allies believed they had vanquished more than 150 years go? Is America in the age of Trump on the verge of a second Civil War? Is today's Republican Party the true heir to the vicious, failed dreams of the Confederacy?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University. Blight is also the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is the author of many books including "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory," "Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War" and "Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory."
His most recent book is the national bestseller "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."
How do you locate Donald Trump's presidency and movement in a larger historical context? There are many people who make the claim that this moment feels as if the United States is on the precipice of a second Civil War.
We’re all searching for an analogy both for Donald Trump as a character and the larger political phenomenon he represents. It is not yet the Civil War. It is not yet 1861. No one has seceded from the Union just yet. And the voter turnout during the midterms shows us that people were engaged in normal politics.
However, there is no question that the United States has dysfunctional institutions. There are structures in the Constitution that either do not work or frankly do not make much modern sense, as in the Electoral College. And we have political parties that are struggling to organize people in a persuasive way. The party structure is very important. If our political parties disintegrate and splinter, no longer providing the political organizations through which we define ourselves -- if that happens, then our particular kind of system is in deep trouble.
America has a serious problem with voter suppression, gerrymandering and, in some cases, outright voter fraud and vote theft by the Republican Party. How can we fight back?
It is very frustrating for many of us -- those reasonable people -- to see that we once again have a serious voting rights problem in the United States. Over half a century after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, there is a completely transparent attempt by one political party -- the Republicans -- to suppress the votes of people who do not vote for them. It is patently obvious what has been going on in many states, and not just in the midterms or the 2016 election. This renewed attempt at voter suppression has been going on for years in the country.
How do we solve this problem? A national holiday for voting would be a start. There should be a national standard for voting rules and voting rights -- the basics for how we conduct elections and how we register people to vote in America. There should be same-day registration everywhere. Have voting take place on the weekend or perhaps on a Monday. Make it a national holiday, but a real holiday where the service economy is shut down so everyone can have a chance to vote.
What we simply do not have in America is a bipartisan commitment to maximizing our right to vote. And there’s no way we can see that on the horizon because it is not in the interests of the Republican Party to maximize the right to vote in the United States.
At the end of the day, faith in elections and democracy itself are ultimately at stake. American democracy and our Constitution are great experiments. There are several amendments to the Constitution that need to be made to fix some of these problems and to keep improving and protecting the health of the country's democracy.
How do we locate the long Black Freedom Struggle relative to America's current political crisis?
To call it the Black Freedom Struggle is to call it what it’s been for almost 200 years, going back to the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass used to say that until the black man can vote, slavery is not dead. And he said that all through Reconstruction. We can say today that until black people are totally secure in voting, slavery and its aftermath are not dead.
Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the motivations behind voter suppression. Is it racism alone or just basic garden variety political skulduggery? "If that group of people doesn’t vote for my side, I’m going to try to suppress their vote." It could be black people, brown people, young people or old people. Sometimes it is clearly racism and at other times it could be linked to class as well. There are old arguments in America that some of us are educated enough to vote and some of us are not. Some are prepared for political participation and some are not. The Black Freedom Struggle has been about fighting against those types of anti-democratic beliefs as well.
There has been much writing comparing today's Republican Party and Donald Trump to the treasonous Confederacy during the Civil War. Is this comparison accurate?
I would be careful comparing Trumpism to the Confederacy itself, per se. The best comparison is to the traditions of white supremacy, kleptocracy and oligarchy. But if the claim is that white supremacy does not die and that it revives in new forms, sometimes in more subtle forms, then yes, Trumpism in an example of that dynamic. But Trumpism is not the Confederacy in the sense that it is secessionist. Trump and his supporters and movement are not trying to form their own independent republic -- at least certainly not yet.
However, some of Trumpism's basic aims and assumptions that America ought to be a white people’s country have old roots and are not new in this country. Let’s be very honest here. The Republican Party was a white people’s party before Donald Trump took it over, and it became even more of a white people's party in reaction to Barack Obama.
One of the things we can learn from history is that every revolution has a counterrevolution. When there is change there is a major reaction to it. Donald Trump, his movement and what he represents have their fundamental roots in the resistance to Barack Obama and the idea that an African-American could get elected president of the United States twice.
"Make America great again!" and "Take America back!" are not terribly subtle slogans. This is anger and outrage in the minds of Trump's supporters and many others that America was essentially a white country and it no longer is.
We have an American Mussolini with Donald Trump. He is essentially an authoritarian. But it is not clear who or what Trump is exactly modeling, because he does not know much history, or likely any. But he is an authoritarian. Trump just skirts his way through and around institutions and democratic norms. Donald Trump does not pay any attention to these democratic norms, institutions, rules of the game and standards because he simply does not know them. We are left with some questions then. If we are in this American proto-fascist or authoritarian moment, how do we understand it? How can history help us?
What was Frederick Douglass’ vision of democracy and government? Republicans and other conservatives sometimes love to claim him as their own.
Douglass in every way believed in an activist government for the purpose of destroying slavery, defeating the Confederacy and establishing civil and political liberty for freed people and then protecting them.
However, conservatives love to appropriate Frederick Douglass for their own purposes by emphasizing how he preached self-reliance to black people. What the conservatives ignore is the 90 percent of his public life which was spent as a radical outsider, always beating on the doors and trying to get inside of power in order to use it for his people. These same conservatives have to ignore the 90 percent of Douglass' life when he was a radical abolitionist. Yes, Douglass was a proponent of self-reliance -- but every black leader in the 19th century believed in black self-reliance.
What else were you going to do in a society that enslaved you, then denied you every conceivable right, as seen in the Dred Scott case? How are you not going to believe in self-reliance on the day after the Dred Scott decision, which said you had no rights and no future? Then that same society will undergo a revolution and put your equality before the law into the Constitution, but within a decade or two your rights are going to be erased again. Given those realities, how do you not believe in self-reliance for your own community?
But what modern conservatives tend to do with Frederick Douglass is to take those speeches about self-reliance out of context with claims that Douglass was not only a Republican, he was conservative-thinking, limited government, a believer in bootstraps. This is so ahistorical. Almost everybody believed in bootstrap ideology in the 19th century.
Are the likes of Clarence Thomas and the other mercenary black conservatives that you see on Fox News and elsewhere acting in bad faith and fundamentally dishonest? Or are they just ignorant about what Frederick Douglass actually said, believed in, represented and struggled for?
Both. Sometimes it is just a selective understanding of history. There is an actual black conservative organization called the Frederick Douglass Republicans. They were holding meetings and conventions at CPAC [the annual conservative movement conference].
Blacks and whites can come to the same conclusions about all kinds of philosophical questions. But on the other hand, you have to have a certain ignorance about Frederick Douglass to just pluck that one part out of him and use it for your own purposes. Get Douglass on your side and, man, you got that great voice of the 19th century preaching you a sermon.
What can Frederick Douglass teach the American people and the world about resistance in the age of Trump?
When asked that question I tell folks that Frederick Douglass had a long view of history. Second, he absolutely believed in the power of social movements. His famous quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will," is beautiful.
It’s eloquent. It stands the test of time. It can sit any moment. It could be a headline today. If you don’t resist authoritarianism, if you don’t resist white supremacy, if you don’t resist an immoral power, if you don’t resist the ignorance behind climate denial and so on, you’re not a citizen and you don’t deserve the label. I remind people that we can’t all be Frederick Douglass. We have to make a living. People have to raise their kids. They have family responsibilities. He did too. But he never made a dime from the age of 23 to almost his 60s, except with his voice and his pen.
That may have meant that Douglass was unusual and special. He really was. He was a genius with words. He was an editor, an orator and a writer. Now, we can't all do that. Some of us will never work with our pen. Most of us can't. Most of us don’t write for the public. But we have a voice and we have a vote. If we don’t use it, then we get the society we deserve. That is what Douglass' message for young people is.
But Douglass also faced one crisis after another, one debacle after another. How did Douglass keep the faith? Douglass had a moral center. He had a moral cause. Sometimes we just need to stop ourselves and reflect on what our moral centers are. What do we believe in?
Is our moral cause to build a better future for our children than the one we had? Or is our moral cause maximizing equality? Or is our moral cause maximizing the right to vote? Is our moral cause better jobs for the lower middle class? Is our moral cause equalizing access to education? Is our moral cause reducing the ridiculous price of education? Is our moral cause the environment; saving the planet?
Sometimes Douglass would fall back on that line from Matthew in the Bible: “I walk by faith and not by sight. I know what I believe in. I walk by faith, not by sight.” That’s the kind of language he used after Dred Scott. That’s the kind of language he used after the 1883 civil rights cases [undoing much of Reconstruction], which were a tremendous blow. The court simply said unanimously that the 14th Amendment can only be enforced at the state level, which was a disaster for the 14th Amendment.
Sometimes you better know what your faith is, what your moral core is, in a society that at times is waiting there to shock you.
What would you tell the writers of the inevitable Frederick Douglass movie about his life? How should they channel his personhood? Who was he?
Douglass could be extremely hypersensitive. He was hypersensitive to racial slights. He was also hypersensitive to slights about his lack of any formal education. He was a very proud man, proud of his discovery of language and his ability to write. He was extremely proud of his appearance. That stunning man we see in so many of the photographs, in his starched shirts, is making a statement with his style and dress: “I’m a black man, but I’m educated and I’m smart, and don’t take me on because I might defeat you with words.”
But he was also somebody who could be very insecure. He also hit walls in his life. This is the part that I try to develop the best I can in my new book. He had at least a couple of serious mental breakdowns in his life.
Becoming an abolitionist in the 19th century was not a good career move. There was no salary. There was no health insurance, no pension, nothing. It’s just not a good move. But here was Douglass and he came apart for a while. He was probably that young guy who hit a wall and wondered if what he was doing made any sense when he looked at his kid. That’s a part of Douglass too, that he never tells us about. He wrote 1,200 pages of autobiography, but he tells us very, very little about his domestic, private or personal life. It’s all the public man in the autobiography.
What is it like to be a legend such as Frederick Douglass?
They’re humans under tremendous stress and pressure. We want these legends and heroes to be under that stress and pressure because we want him to be Martin Luther King. We want him to be Frederick Douglass. We want her to be Rosa Parks. We want them to be our heroes. But think about what we’re imposing on them.
In my earlier years of high school teaching, back in the 1970s, I would have black students who would say, “I don’t want to know about slavery. Just don’t make me learn it.” I don’t know that I had good answers then. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing. What those students were really saying is, “Hey, everybody wants to find a perfect ancestor. Everybody wants to find a triumphant story they can live within. Everybody wants black heroes who are always winning."
That is absurd. Douglass was living in Rochester, New York, in those raw winters. He and Anna created a garden -- she created the garden, mostly -- to try to be self-sufficient. He was running a newspaper out of an office downtown. The first printing press he bought fell apart because he didn’t buy a good one. He had to hire a printer. He started teaching his three sons to be printer’s apprentices so they could help him. The newspaper became like a family business. They would get it out every week but it wasn’t making any money.
Here Frederick Douglass is trying to change the world with his voice and his pen and he sometimes felt like a failure at it. And we want to hold him to some higher standard of some sort, that he should be heroic? That’s almost absurd. Everyone who reaches high or has enormous ambition, whether it’s to be an opera singer, a hip hop star, a novelist or a president of the United States or a CEO or a radio host or a writer, we’re going to hit a wall and we’re going to fail.
That happened even to Frederick Douglass. He wanted us to believe he was that self-made man, always on the trajectory rising up. Douglass' own self-made stories were always ascendant. There’s no room for those occasional failures in that ascendancy, but they’re surely there. And, my God, those failures were certainly there for Frederick Douglass' children.
What do you want readers to understand about Frederick Douglass after they finish your new book?
That this man was a genius with words, that he had a prophet’s ability with language, by which I mean Douglass could find the words to explain a catastrophe, a disaster, a triumph, a pivot in history. He could find those words, whether spoken or written, that most of us can never see or never find. He had that prophet’s ability to see into a problem, tell us what was happening to us, tell us where we might go. That does not make him divine or anything like that. A prophet is thoroughly human.
But Douglass fits that role of the 19th-century American prophet who had more to tell us, in the millions of words he wrote or spoke, about our condition with race or the problem with slavery, about the meaning of Civil War, the meaning of emancipation, the meaning of Reconstruction, the meaning of its betrayal, than perhaps any other American. You encountered Douglass in his language, in his words, whether it’s a speech, whether it’s in reading one of the autobiographies. Then, if you get hooked, you go look for more words, and there are a lot of them.
I want them to remember his second autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom." Read Douglass' words where he said, “As long as heaven allows me to do this work, I will do it with my voice, my pen, and my vote.” Those are his words. That’s all any of us have. Unless we have great wealth or we get elected to higher office, most of us, all we have is a voice and a vote. We got to at least use them.