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“No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. ” < – Seattle Book Mama reviews: "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom," by David W. Blight

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.


 

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Simon and Schuster Copy Editor & Prof. David Blight: “There is no ‘Charleston’ in the state of Maryland.” [W Street Douglassonian copy edit of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”]

Dear Simon and Schuster Copy Editor:

In reviewing an advanced copy of Prof. David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom I have come across a small, yet important and consequential, copy edit.

While there are “Charlestons” in nearly two dozen states naming towns, cities, counties and a state capital there is no Charleston in Maryland. There is a Charlestown (Cecil County) and Chestertown (Kent County).

If Prof. Blight is referencing a lost junction, town or city in Dorchester County I am unaware of its existence or its history.

I would kindly suggest the appropriate correction is made. Geographic accuracy and importance of place matters to the good people on the Shore and in Tubman Country.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Respectfully,

John Muller

author, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia

Old Anacostia Douglassonian


 

David Blight - error _ 8.22.2018

SOURCE:

Blight, David. W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

p. 598, 2nd paragraph, 1st sentence


EDITOR’s Note:

I am not throwing stones from a glass house; I am lodging boulders from W Street in Old Anacostia.

As a local journalist, I go to great lengths to fact-check my stories to spell names and places correctly, as well to get the facts right.

In my book there is a copy error or two. It happens. I understand. Comes with the territory. For example, there is a mention of “Lewis Douglas” as Deputy Marshal when of course it is correctly “Lewis Douglass.” Additionally, I over-use the word intrepid in concurrent paragraphs.

However, I am neither a lauded professor at Yale University nor was my book published by one of the “Big Five.”

The expectation to get simple, rudimentary facts correct is not an unreasonable expectation.

I can only speak for myself but every inhabitant of Pine Street, Bucktown and “Pindertown” I have had the acquaintance of making knows in their sleep the city closely affiliated with Harriet Tubman is Cambridge.

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People’s Book Review: David Blight – Frederick Douglass — pt 1 (video)

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Forthcoming profiles of “Black Women in the World of Frederick Douglass” to provide fuller history than selective and restrictive “[White] Women in the World of Frederick Douglass” (Oxford University Press, 2017)

FD statue in Rochester _ Leigh Fought bookLeMoyne College professor Leigh Fought, author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, has recently decided to insert herself into my ongoing refutation of the speculative “scholarship” of disgraceful David Blight.

Until Prof. Fought decided to reach I have quietly kept reoccurring critiques I’ve heard of her award-winning book to myself.

Politics of respectability need no longer apply 1) after Fought posted a message on her blog about me without so much as letting me know and 2) deleted my initial comments apologizing for involving her, although she initially provided her full consent, with ongoing research projects into records pertaining to Anna Douglass and other family members that have remained elusive and unpublished.

Dr. Fought was asked and enlisted in these research pursuits because of her professionalism but she has shown herself to prioritize pettiness over the pursuit of scholarship. Prof. Fought’s actions are not only disgraceful to the journalistic legacy of Dr. Douglass but to the journalism of Helen Pitts Douglass.


Taught about history on the county roads & back of the late night 70 bus

While a student at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland I frequently called out not only the errors and textbook omissions in our world history and US history classes but other classmates. I was known to get passionate and sometimes would more than call out a fellow student or two. (I did the same in college.)

My high school teachers were of little to no help calming me down, with the exception of Vietnam combat veteran and AP US History teacher Robert J. Washek. Often my classmates would intervene to calm me down so as to prevent me from crossing the line. On more than one occasion a young African-American woman, or women, grabbed me by the arm and took me into the hallway to either provide counsel or a moment of prayer to calm me down.

That is how I came up.

I thank E. Bacon, C. Williams, K. Dawkins, M. Sawyer, A. Philpot, T. Stewart, K. Jones, the late E. Cray and many others who I can’t recall without the aid of a yearbook.

I recently spoke to an old high school classmate and told her about the intellectual delicateness and fragile egos of fellow Douglass scholars, including the genteel Leigh Fought. I will trust counsel of someone I’ve known for twenty years over the “gas lighting” efforts of an insincere scholar who was initially helpful and supportive of my efforts, including donating money to a community conference and mural installation at 16th & W Street SE.

According to a dear friend I’ve known since I was 12, “Give them the same grief you gave our teachers. That’s their job to deal with it and recognize the validity. If not, I know how you go. We all know how you go. I don’t think they understand where you’re coming from, where we are all from. Let them know. We taught you, so you better teach them. I pray for them. They don’t know who they are playing with.”

My friend, who read Prof. Fought’s book, suggested I begin a series on the blog, Black Women in the World of Frederick Douglass.

While Prof. Fought went nobly further than any previous biographers in treating the Douglass family — specifically Anna, Rosetta and other women within the intimate cipher of Dr. Douglass — with respect and scholarship there are massive errors, omissions and more than a couple misinterpretations in her work.


Troubling statements and omissions in [White] Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

As Prof. Fought has says, Dr. Douglass ran with a “legion” of women from various reformist movements yet [White] Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is largely a minimization and whitewashing of the associations Dr. Douglass had with women of African descent.

For example, Emily Edmonson, a student at Oberlin College, teacher at the Miner School and a confidant of Dr. Douglass, for nearly a half-century, while a resident of both Sandy Spring, Maryland and Hillsdale, Washington, D.C. in the modern-day Barry Farm community of Southeast is mentioned one single time in the body text of Fought’s manuscript.

On page 140 Edmonson, who also warrants a caption and source note, is described simply as a “former slave.”  White Women in the World of FD _ EmilyEd

“Furor over Frederick and Julia subsided for a time in 1854. In February and March, Julia joined Gerrit Smith, now a congressman, in Washington, DC, reporting her observations of the nation’s capital for Frederick Douglass; Paper. In June, she traveled to Canada West, bringing aid to former slave Emily Edmonson for black expatriates suffering from famine.

This is troubling.

White Women in the World of FD _ JM mentionI attempted to forewarn Prof. Fought. She alludes to my warning in her acknowledgements:

John Muller, who knows more about Douglass in DC and the neighborhood around Cedar Hill than I thought possible, who pointed me toward the black women whom Douglass worked with there, and who is a meticulous researcher.

That said, I am a street reporter and a street historian. I came up in the community and the community is where I remain.

Scholars, such as Prof. Fought, who cannot debate and have a conversation are not scholars; they are dangerous propagandists of their own distortions, misinterpretations and lies.

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Book Review: “Douglass in His Own Time”

cover _ Douglass in His Own TimeIn a series of books published over the last fifteen years by the University of Iowa Press prominent literary men and women from the 19th century such as Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman have been remembered by those that knew them best; not modern historians but their contemporaries who knew them as they lived.

Joining rank in the collection is Douglass in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates,” ably and succinctly compiled by John Ernest, Chair of the English Department at the University of Delaware.

Douglass in His Own Time is a welcome and timely addition to the truly limited scholarship on Douglass, poised to swell as we approach the bicentennial of his birth in 2018.

In the introduction Ernest offers, “One might say that Douglass is not merely celebrated for his story; he is also contained by it, reduced to the confines of a heroic struggle against slavery and his attainment of a glorious freedom through which he continued his antislavery work. Less a living presence than an inspiring tale, Frederick Douglass remains relatively unknown even to many of those who celebrate his achievements. Douglass in His Own Time offers an introduction to Douglass the man by those who knew him – but even in these writings Douglass can seem elusive, shadowed by the fame that enters every room before him.”

The book includes an introduction, 13 photos and prints (not cited with the most exacting detail or captions), a chronology, 43 unique entries and an index. The recollections span the entirety of Douglass’s life from his early years as a slave at Wye House to his toil as a rising star and agent on the anti-slavery circuit to his controversial second marriage and travels abroad to his waning years as a commencement speaker.

Well-known individuals appear from William Wells Brown to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Elizabeth Cady Stanton alongside lesser-known reformists, journalists and educators such as “Grace Greenwood,Cordelia RayJames McCune Smith, and Kelly Miller. While expansive in its selection it is in no way inclusive of all sources nor does it pledge to be. Absent are reminiscences from any members of Douglass’s family as well as two women, Ida Wells and Mary Church Terrell (as well as her husband Robert H. Terrell), whose activism influenced the direction of 20th century American life.

The range of source material gathered by Ernest demonstrates the many public lives and various activist causes Douglass embraced and embodied over more than a half-century on both sides of the Atlantic and from Massachusetts to Rochester to Washington to Alabalama. Abolitionists, suffragists, editors and members of the church are all appropriately accounted for in this remembrance of Douglass

Any limitations aside, the book promises to be enjoyed by both general Douglassonian and specialists. For those building their Douglass-related library, your collection is not complete unless you have Douglass in His Own Time. 

– JM

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