Speculative historian Prof. David Blight has been provided a platform within the most elite of institutions for decades to genuflect on Frederick Douglass without advancing meaningful and lasting Douglassonian scholarship.
Speaking at the Harvard Law School in the fall of 2016 Blight said:
And that’s the first problem that anyone working on Douglass faces. It’s how the autobiography is always in the way of the biographer. The problem with Douglass is that the subject is always in your way. And you’re constantly trying to get around him, through him, over him. Sometimes, you just want to sit on him. You know, chain him to a chair – bad metaphor – and say, “Stop now!” Why don’t you talk about these 100 subjects in your autobiography?
For historians, such as Blight, who are long on speculation and short on facts I can understand how and why they would make such a telling statement.
Early Douglass biographers, such as Booker T. and Huggins, and more modern writers have simply repeated, regurgitated and retold the story Douglass told in his own life of his life. As Blight says, Douglass wrote 1200 pages of autobiography across his 1845, 1855 and 1881 works, along with an 1892 edition of Life and Times.
The challenges faced by Douglass biographers due to the limitations of Douglass’ own writings are only challenges if you make it so. To industrious and committed Douglassonians these limitations are opportunities.
For example, Douglass never offers a single mention of Howard University in his autobiographical works. For me, this was an opportunity to give a fuller account than had been previously published about FD’s service to Howard University for more than twenty years. I dedicated an entire chapter in Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. to Howard University.
Not only was Douglass on Howard’s Board of Trustees from 1871 until his death, he raised money for Howard, regularly attended graduations and campus events, assisted in organizing the first alumni association, mentored Howard students and welcomed them to his Washington homes, welcomed VIPs to campus including President Hayes, testified before Congress on behalf of Howard and was by all accounts, other than his autobiographical writings, a fierce advocate for the university faculty and its students in innumerable ways.
I will continue to correct not only Blight’s current stale interpretations, speculations and presentations on Douglass but his decades of inert scholarship and blatant exploitation of Mr. Douglass.