Biographies are my favorite genre. I love learning what influenced other people to make the decisions they made on their quest toward infamy. I am usually drawn to contemporary people in their own words but I also find special value in someone looking back at another person’s life and painting a picture of a life while knowing the impact of the person they are chronicling. The biographer can speak to the full life and body of work, provide context based on events occurring before, during and after their lives and speak to the subject’s legacy.
Still, upon learning that there was a new Frederick Douglass biography coming out, I thought, “Who needs that? He wrote three autobiographies.” (Spoiler alert: I needed that but more on that later.) Frederick Douglass seems like a person who everyone knows everything about. Most of us have a basic idea of who he was and what he did. It wasn’t until I heard an interview with the author David Blight on NPR’s Fresh Air that my interest was piqued. Blight and Terry Gross discussed how his legacy has flatten him in many ways and that his works have been twisted and propped up for both sides of the US political parties when discussing class and racial issues. I opened my library app to get in the long line to borrow the audiobook.
So what happened?
Obviously, this book is about Frederick Douglass “Frederick Douglass-ing” but it’s about so much more than that. The book chronicles his days in slaved in Virginia and Maryland, his escape, his family life with his wife, children and grandchildren, his missteps and, of course, the career that made him both one of the most listened to men and one of the most photographed people of the 1800s. This prolific biography spans the ins and outs of his entire life in 38+ audiobook hours. Here’s the short version. Born Frederick Bailey, likely a product of the slaveowner’s rape of his mother, Douglass was owned by a couple of families until meeting his free-born wife Anna and escaping as a fugitive slave. He began his career speaking in churches and public spaces by giving first – hand accounts about the abuse he and others suffered because of slavery. This lead to an extensive career that including being an editor, international diplomat, entrepreneur, banker (which is a low point) and more. Douglass was also a public figure whose opinions about abolition, politics and society was sought.
Douglass’s private life was also fascinating, as he balanced life as a person who was away from home a lot. The book hypothesized that early trauma from slavery kept him from getting too close to many of his family members, including his siblings, wife and children. In all, the book provided a deep dive into a historical figure who has been flattened and has had his words misconstrued to support current societal issues.
You like biographies and history and don’t mind a long read. The book documents his life and compares it to the historical events happening around Douglass.