We may not know Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey’s exact day of birth in 1818, but that’s no matter. Like the many other disenfranchised African Americans of the 1800s, he had to consciously claim an identity constantly suppressed. And so he claimed even his own birthday — February 14th — a nod to his mother who would lovingly refer to him as her “little Valentine.” He passed on February 20, 1895, having just returned from a women’s suffrage rally. In between, the abolitionist, intellectual, orator and dissident led an extraordinary life, condemning the barbarity of slavery, its ethos and its upholders.
His autobiographies, like “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845) and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881), are often considered required classroom reading. Other volumes, however, both in Douglass’ own words and the accounts of others, teach us even more about his legacy and how it has transformed American policy, culture and generations of activists. To celebrate his birthday, tack these books on to your required reading list:
It’s a task to share, and convey successfully, the circumstances and brutal reality of a slave’s life to a reader, but Douglass does so, unfalteringly and with incredible literary polish. “My Bondage” is evidence of the general understanding that Douglass’ powers as writer and orator outshone all around him. His early life in Tuckahoe is vividly rendered. Growing up in a “dull, flat and unthrifty district” in Maryland, Douglass was briefly raised by his grandmother before almost immediately being sent to work. He dismantles misconceptions about the conditions and psychology of both slaves and those enforcing slavery. In “My Bondage,” he warns readers that, while 3 million innocents were enslaved, “there can be no peace to the wicked while slavery continues in the land…nature must cease to be nature…Christianity must be exterminated; all ides of justice and the laws of eternal goodness must be utterly blotted out from the human soul ere a system so foul and infernal can escape condemnation.”
Lincoln and Douglass separately epitomize the “self-made man,” but many will be surprised to see how truly similar their trajectories were. They were self-taught readers, both students of the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, and the American schoolroom’s Columbian Orator. They both also cited the beleaguered prince, Hamlet, in reflecting upon their lives: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hewn them how we will.” Their relationship, sometimes acrimonious but always admiring, reads something like an American History Marvel comic mash-up. Offering their stories side by side isn’t a gimmicky civil rights scoreboard of two men with distinct agendas. Rather, the biography of Douglass and Lincoln parallels each man’s transformation as they worked in tandem to reshape our nation into something more humane. John Stauffer, an esteemed Civil War scholar, provides an account of two seemingly different men and their historical convergence.
Author James Oakes is a refreshingly unapologetic biographer of two men reconciling the often irreconcilable differences between politicians and reformers. The presiding question of the slavery era — “why should [Douglass] or anyone else have to settle for something less that equal rights” made “Douglass’ radicalism more reasonable, [and] Lincoln’s pragmatism more radical,” revealing how the two men were never very far apart. In fact, according to Oakes, what unites public figures is sometimes more inflammatory than what divides. It’s a brisk, vital and extremely timely read about politics, militarization and basic rights.
James A. Colaiaco
For context and reverberations of his famed speech in 1852, “Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July” is terrific. His speech was delivered at a meeting sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York, one designed to protest Independence Day and its hypocritical, sacred values about liberty. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Douglass told the white audience in what’s considered the greatest abolition speech of the 19th century. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Colaiaco, taking care to represent the circumstances and passions of the Civil War era, unites the most important players with lesser-knowns like Charles Lawson, the free black lay preacher who inspired Douglass early on. The book not only shows the impact of such a speech as the one by the Genesee River, but how Douglass took to task all institutions condoning inhumanity.