The Long Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Neil Roberts is associate professor of Africana studies, political theory, and the philosophy of religion at Williams College. This interview was originally produced for radioby Darien Lamen and the Rochester Community Media Center. It has been transcribed and republished with permission, and has been lightly edited for readability. Additionally, for a TV interview with Neil Roberts on the A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass, see the recent episodeof the showAfrican Ascent on Boston’s BNN network

Frederick Douglass. Wikimedia Commons.

Darien Lamen: So Neil, can you talk about why you decided to put this volume together, and who you hope picks it up?

Neil Roberts: What I wanted to do was to have, in a single volume, something that had not been made before. That’s a single volume that combines new essays with reprints of important essays from Frederick Douglass’s contemporaries, all on Douglass’s political thought. Douglass has, rightly so, been written about extensively in the areas of literature, history, rhetoric and public policy. But interestingly, he has not been treated as widely and as systematically in terms of his political thought, in terms of his contribution to different concepts.

I wanted to assemble this volume so that scholars of Douglass, lay intellectuals, and even those who are relatively unknowledgeable about Douglass could all access very accessible works. In addition, the book has a very extensive, thematic bibliography. So beyond just the book it offers a lot for those who are interested in biographies of Douglass, works by Douglass, or secondary works either about Douglass or about themes that Douglass wrote about in his wide career.

In my introduction (“Political Thought in the Shadow of Douglass”), instead of writing a summation of the essays in the book, I spent a large degree of time trying to reflect on, 200 years after his birth, why Douglass is significant in our current moment. I am really excited about its publication this summer, and my hope is that it can be a resource for readers who are interested in Douglass and in wanting to keep his legacy alive.

Darien: On this question of Douglass’s significance to our current moment, you write that the Black Lives Matter movement actually embodies his “spirit of rational hopefulness”, and that this can be seen, for example, in its defiant embrace of the refrain “we gon’ be alright” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Can you talk about that, and why you see this movement as having captured the spirit of Frederick Douglass?

Neil: So, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a hashtag on Twitter. They did this in the wake of the shooting of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, the deaths of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and several other unarmed black youths and adults. That led to a rapid proliferation of Black Lives Matter chapters and different utterances, from “I can’t breathe” to “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on To Pimp a Butterfly.

Black Lives Matter has become a national, hemispheric and international network that uses social media as a conduit to organise and mobilise. I think that Black Lives Matter, in many regards, captures the spirit or the “afterlife” of Frederick Douglass because it’s a movement that is profoundly concerned with identifying anti-black acts and developing processes of re-humanisation as well. Instead of silence. Instead of denigrating others. Instead of not taking action.

Frederick Douglass declared near the end of the Fourth of July oration that “I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope”. But he also insisted that “Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together”. And in Douglass’s address, “The Nation’s Problem” – given Washington, DC in 1889 – Douglass asserted that “the duty of today is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage”.

The different contributors, myself included, are not claiming to have all the answers in A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass. But we’ve taken that idea from Douglass that I see in the Black Lives Matter movement, and tried to confront the problems that we face today with intelligence and courage. I’m hoping that the volume can not only contribute to Douglass’s legacy, but actually capture the spirit of movements that have emerged recently and will likely emerge into the future.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    In reading about the US Civil War, the name Frederick Douglass came up several times but I always thought of him as someone that was about fighting for black equality to fulfill the promise of: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Seems that he was into equality period and gave his support to women’s rights as well. He does look like a hard case from his photos and yet he had it in his heart to visit and reconcile with his ex-master on that man’s deathbed.
    Can you imagine what it would be like if he again walked among us? He would have had serious fights with the likes of Cheney and McCain and would not roll over for them. Obama he would have recognized as the con-artist that he was and dismissed him. And the Congressional Black Caucus? He probably would have told them they if they were not prepared to actually do something for their fellow blacks, then to get out of the way and let somebody else step up to the job. More on Douglass at-

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The Boondocks cartoon did this with MLK being in a coma. I don’t agree with every aspect and it ignores economic gains made by black Americans prior to Civil Rights activity that was pushed by the threat of losing those gains, but

        I had one of those giant lectures with Julian Bond, long time chair of the NAACP. I usually sat in the back and did the NYT puzzle. I sat in the back with the same three kids in that class who all happened to be Catholic. Two of them went to the wealthiest Catholic school in the state. My school was founded by the Sisters of Charity.

        Mostly, we were there to hear Bond’s stories. He was a cool guy. He starts to break down writing of King before the “I have a Dream Speech” (which was a bit of a victory lap and more magnanimous) and discussed MLK’s ability to weave in familiar biblical imagery. Bond casually asked if anyone up front would explain the imagery for kids who might not be familiar. No one answered. He kept repeating. The kid we called “Bible Alex” from my first year dorm because we thought in that suite was named “Alex” was right there with his bible thumper friends.

        I looked around as Bond seemed mildly frustrated. There were glazed everywhere including the two kids went to the ritzy Catholic school. So I answered. Bond told me to repeat myself because there was nothing to add. A few minutes later he directed me to explain another biblical illusion. My friends had no idea I was religious. I’m not. I did vaguely pay attention except this one leggy brunette was around…I don’t know why they didn’t know. The Catholic liturgical calendar. I was still going to Mass. I saw those three kids. They’ve been exposed. I believe the potential diversions are a problem.

        I wonder about the obsession, not popularity, with Star Wars, a perfectly fun movie as fun movies go its competition is Raiders and Back To the Future, but its not that good. Everyone has seen it, and its a point of mutual conversation and shared storytelling. I see it as a desire to conform when we lack mutual shared stories in light of the glut of entertainment and education options available. Frederick Douglas and MLK spoke to audiences who shared certain cultural norms and an understanding of those norms. For a Christian, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” (this was after 1963) should be an obvious reference to Moses and the Apostles seeing a transfigured Jesus and the moral understanding that the Promised Land isn’t just place but a moral change.

        King and Douglas might not work as people today simply lack a shared, knowledge of a familiar narrative from which to learn from.

        Ah yes, it’s a lot like “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. In many ways it’s superior but will never be as recognized as the original. -Wayne Campbell

        TNG came out in syndication with different times against a growing cable and satellite alternatives to network programming versus TOS. The Original Series holds a place in the cultural zeitgeist. Much like religion often misunderstood and certainly altered to a few out of context scenes about green women. Kirk was there when she danced. Everyone knows it. Except, people who know the scene is from the pilot featuring Pike. Star Trek has a place, but its not studied or examined just like the Bible.

        Getting back to King and Douglas, their brilliance was taking the familiar, both distant and near, and bridging how they matter to us and turn them into a positive call for action that is more intense than a few prayers and exhortations of half remembered familiar words designed for short term emotional appeals.

        Mark Zuckerburg, genius (snark), gave the commencement address at Harvard this last Spring, and he brought up Beyonce and JK Rowling as examples for the graduates to take with them about pursuing their dreams. How sad it this? At the same time, who else can be referenced in recent years that everyone knows? Oh of course, I loved the tune from “All the Single Ladies.” To a society that can read and watch so different things, the few simple but universal things do hold power. Items that require more effort leave us disjointed and not able to have a common language. I feel that King and Douglas would be ignored in favor of the trite to avoid confessions about not being familiar with what we should remember and hold onto or at least their ability to put into words important ideas wouldn’t be recognized in favor of

        We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

        It sounds like the plot of ethnic mismatch comedy #644. What would happen to Frederick Douglas? He would be ignored at least by people who consume their news through msm outlets. The internet does make it much easier to examine an MLK type’s work if we aren’t familiar with the illusions.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Its not part of the American Presidential history system, so what happened tends to be ignored or not shared because it doesn’t line up with the Presidential Administrations or wasn’t of concern to the NYT at the time.

      MLK doesn’t represent a new wave of black thought or even a front runner. “I Have a Dream” (his worst public speech; sorry, its a victory lap) and so does everyone else who worked at the NAACP while he was a local preacher. MLK was out of the movement for over five years while people like Joe Lieberman were registering black voters in the South. Rather he represents a victory of W.E.B. DuBois over black America’s place in the U.S. as both fully black and fully American. There was Garveyism that believed in total separation. And Booker T. Washington who advocated a slower integration where blacks could get marginal schooling in exchange for Jim Crow with a few privileged few allowed to sit at the white people’s table at important events, not everyday. King brought the Garveyists to his side and broke the Booker T. Washington crowd’s (the Black misleadership class) power at the time by challenging their position as guardians of the black church and local bosses who delivered votes. King won this battle for the soul of American and black America’s soul too.

      DuBois challenged Douglas a little for not being black enough, and I think one was living in a world of slavery and the promise of Reconstrution and one saw the rise of Jim Crow and are from different enough worlds that disagreements will arise.

      In a very long Skynet eaten comment, I mentioned stories from Julian Bond. One class, he told us “the white moderate” of the famed “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was code for black church leaders. The disruptions threatened their power and privilege. King and Abernathy were the best preachers in the country, and they made a subtle announcement of war if the Black Misleadership didn’t get in line.

      At fist I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.

      This follows a description of the “white moderate” and then a very Tom Friedmanesque letter from an anonymous white brother about the fight for equality taking time, the Booker T. Washington position.

      a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation

      He then pivots back to the “white moderate” especially the “white church.” He even mentions the postivie efforts of the Catholic Church in the state to integrate school right after mentioning profit interests. The RCC has money or is commonly portrayed as having money. It wasn’t an accident in a world of deeper Catholic and Protestant divides.

  2. HotFlash

    Ah yes, organizing via social media. I see social media as surveillance nodes and choke-points, at the very best, and at the worst, as nooses, into which I do not propose to put my neck. Bad enough on ‘regular’ Internet websites. I suppose I miss a lot, but OTOH, I am organizing with my neighbours, face to face. I suspect that if it all goes pear-shaped, they will be the people I will need to know.

  3. 1 Kings

    Yeah the world’s going head-basket-hell, but damnit just seeing Frederick Douglas name on the screen and his quote fires me. The amount of b.s. that man had to go though, not even including being a slave in his younger years, which is of course impossible to comprehend.
    The greatest American as far as I’m concerned, with Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Lena Horne, the Tuskegee men, Louis and MLK all close seconds. Genius, dignity, perserverance, inspiration.
    Thanks Yves for posting this.

    1. Kyle C

      I agree, the greatest American to date. My daughter and I discussed and agreed on this not long ago.

      1. ObjectiveFunction

        Yes, Douglas is among the greatest American orators and essayists. I’m not sure I’d put him before Enlightenment polymaths like Franklin or Jefferson though.

  4. marym

    Thank you for posting this very interesting interview.

    Reading a bit about emancipation and the early days of Reconstruction started me thinking about some of the common features of black organizing for community self-help and advancement, and for the broader universal issues of justice and equality during various phases of oppression and hope through the years.

    It’s also interesting to compare that history with the responses of the now-prominently aggrieved white working class. The response to the de-industrialization, union-busting and union leadership corruption, stagnant wages, declining benefits etc. of the past 40 years was, in my opinion, often passive and atomizing . Today it takes the decidedly not populist form of the politics of exclusion and blaming every demographic graphic group that isn’t the looting class.

    I can’t help but think that some of those common themes in black grass-roots organizing, as well as the national and international class consciousness of leaders like MLK, Fred Hampton, Jesse Jackson offered our country some paths not taken toward justice, equality, and a vibrant, diverse, resilient society.

  5. clarky90

    But but but…. I thought it was the 19th century Democratic Party (predecessors of Bezos, Zukerberg, Biden, Clinton, Pelosi)……..who had freed the slaves?

    “Douglass was a lifelong member of the GOP and strongly supported two of its most prominent presidents — Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant — in their efforts to secure the rights of black Americans.

    “I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress,” Frederick Douglass

    The Neo-Plantation Owners are funding the Neo-ProSlavery caucuses in the present USAian Senate and House of Representatives.

      1. clarky90

        The Democratic Party has Seen God’s Light, and changed for the Good. Today they are no longer the Party of the Plantation Owners!

        “Elderly people who co-sign a student loan for a child or grandchild cannot discharge that debt in bankruptcy unless they can meet the “undue hardship” test articulated by the bankruptcy courts. And that is a very hard test to meet.

        And this is true whether an elderly person’s debt arises from a federal student loan or a private student loan. In fact, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Code in 2005 (under the leadership of Senator Joe Biden) to put private student loans under the same undue hardship standard that applies to federal loans.

        This is unjust….”

        Frederick Douglass’ name is being appropriated by “bad actors”,

    1. Big Tap

      Jim Crow wasn’t just the Democratic South’s fault. The Republican dominated U.S. Supreme Court of the 1870’s and 1880’s neutered many of the Reconstruction amendments impact passed by the Radical Republicans. ‘Radical’ is what they are known as historically. Jim Crow by the 1890’s was generally accepted by both political parties. “In the years following their passage, the Supreme Court, in decisions such as Blyew v. United States, United States v. Cruishank, The Civil Rights Cases, United States v. Harris, Hodges v. United States, and United States v. Reese, eviscerated virtually every single one of these statutes by finding significant portions of them unconstitutional.”

  6. Charles Yaker

    1Kings posted a list of great Americans not sure of the relavence but I would add two who If more appreciated and yes emulated or followed would serve us well during these times. Muhammad Ali and Mark Twain our greatest and least appreciated author possibly on purpose by the elites that fear his message.

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