A "Man Utterly Beyond Category" | Tonya Bolden on Frederick Douglass

Two hundred years after the birth of the orator, statesman, and human rights activist, the author offers a close look at his life and achievements.

Listen to Tonya Bolden reveal the story behind Facing Frederick, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Ask most students about Frederick Douglass, and they'll tell you about the enslaved man’s efforts to teach himself to read and write and about his “great escape” from bondage at the age of 20, but little beyond that. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, in Facing Frederick (Abrams, Jan. 2018; Gr 7 Up), author and historian Tonya Bolden examines the life of the orator, abolitionist, newspaperman, women’s rights activist, and statesman—offering a full picture of a long life of “a man utterly beyond category.”

While many people may not know the full extent of Douglass’s achievements, they do know what he looked like, and you begin your book with mention of his thoughts on photography. Can you share them?

We learned from historian John Stauffer that Douglass loved photography and was the most photographed American of the 19th century. Douglass was very particular about his image. I gather that during a sitting he called the shots (no pun intended) when it came to the pose. Douglass loved photography because it was democratizing. More people could afford to have their pictures taken than have their portraits painted. Douglass saw photographs as satisfying deep yearning that people had to see themselves as others saw them and to been seen by future generations.

The account of Douglass’s relationship with the Northern abolitionists and William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (MASS), in particular, is fascinating. Can you talk a bit about that?

When Douglass became an abolitionist shortly after he escaped slavery and had settled in New Bedford, MA, he threw in with the Garrisonians. The white abolitionist was like a god to Douglass. But after a while, he began to chafe at Garrison’s paternalism and patronizing ways. Douglass began to think for himself, to grow. He found himself no longer in lockstep with Garrison’s doctrines; for example, that it was immoral for abolitionists to be involved with politics because the government was immoral as it sanctioned slavery. Garrisonians also rejected violence as a means to end slavery. By the time Douglass broke with Garrison, he had become close with the white abolitionist Gerrit Smith of New York State. Smith [believed] abolitionists should be involved in politics. Douglass also fell out with some black abolitionists who believed that blacks would never be given a fair chance in America and should relocate to Central America or Africa. Stay! said Douglass. He thought there was hope for America. At one point he became very disillusioned. Right before the Civil War broke out, Douglass flirted with the idea of blacks emigrating to Haiti.

The North Star, the paper Douglass founded and struggled to keep afloat, which included articles on prison reform, alcohol, the environment, education, and equality, seems to have been especially prescient. Was it a paper before its time?

I think it was of its time. In the 19th century there were progressive people passionate for all sorts of reforms. Douglass was a progressive, so naturally progressive people wanted to contribute articles to his newspaper. We tend to have too quaint a view of people in the 19th century. There were men and women into all sorts of things we consider “modern.” 

For example Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, was a vegetarian. In the 19th century there were socialists and people who lived in communes. Most people know of Douglass’s work on the lecture circuit, but fewer know him as a women’s rights activist who passionately argued at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s suffrage, and the motto of one of his newspapers begins with “Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color….”

Yes, Douglass was a supporter of women’s rights. His second wife, the white woman Helen Pitts, was a feminist. Of course, back when the Fifteenth Amendment, through which black men gained the national vote, was on deck, many feminists, black and white, were furious with Douglass for urging its passage instead of holding out for universal suffrage.

You write that Douglass had no illusions that after the Civil War blacks would “suddenly cease to be a despised people” and about the “black codes,” curfews, passes, and laws that continued to subjugate people. What became his focus at this time?

Suffrage and civil rights. In a way his focus never changed. Fundamentally Douglass was an advocate for human beings to have the freedom to live up to their potential. He was a human rights activist.

Given his long life of achievements, is there something that Douglass was especially proud of accomplishing that most people may not be aware of?

I am sure that Douglass was proud of this financial success. He became a rather wealthy man who late in life lived on a 15-acre estate, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia [in DC]. His mansion eventually had more than 20 rooms. And in that house I imagine that one of his prides if not the pride was his library. When he died, it contained more than a thousand books. His library was very wide-ranging: government, history, philosophy, travel, religion, fiction, poetry, and on and on.

Douglass delivered many important speeches in his lifetime. Is there one that you feel epitomizes his skills as a speaker and summarizes his lifelong beliefs?

That’s a tough question. There’s the speech that has become known as “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” There’s also his commencement address at Ohio’s Western Reserve College in the 1850s; an earlier speech in Plymouth, MA, on the church and prejudice; and his address to the Republican National Convention in 1876. And we cannot forget the speech delivered on an anniversary of the end of slavery in the West Indies with the famous line, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Because Douglass was such a thinker and possessed of such eloquence, I’m hard-pressed to single out one speech.

You are known for your impeccable research and have said that it’s discovering some of the daily artifacts of a life—receipts, etc.—that humanizes subjects. Was there anything in particular that you learned about or touched that opened Douglass up to you?

I became so tender toward him when I discovered that, while he was a voracious reader, he struggled with spelling. Also, even with all that he accomplished, late in life he still regretted that he never had any formal education. And, yes, reading receipts and seeing, for example, where he had his shirts made and where he purchased his gaiters, made him all the more human to me. While I didn’t read all of his correspondence, I did read a lot of it. His letters offer terrific insights into his personality.

Read SLJ's review of Facing Frederick; for additional titles, see Joy Fleishhacker's selected annotated bibliography on this celebrated American.

  Listen to Tonya Bolden reveal the story behind Facing Frederick, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

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