The Futures of Frederick Douglass: An Introduction

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

Artist Kenadi Johnson’s mixed media portrait of Frederick Douglass, titled “Our Neighborhood at Peace,” is seen at the Anacostia Unmapped 2.0 exhibition at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities gallery in Washington on Sept. 12, 2018. (Photo by Rebecca Chillrud, Chesapeake Bay Program, Flickr).

Since before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass had wanted to visit Paris. While in Britain in 1860, he had applied to the U.S. ambassador in London for a passport that would have allowed him to travel to France. The passport was denied to him, he tells in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, on the grounds that he was not a citizen of the United States—a chilling reminder that the Supreme Court had excluded African Americans from U.S. citizenship in its 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. Although he obtained a permit from the French ambassador instead, Douglass canceled his trip and precipitously returned to the United States when he received news of the death of his youngest daughter Annie.1 Twenty-six years later, Douglass, now nearing the age of seventy, embarked on a tour of Europe and Egypt with his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass. He relished every minute of his time in Paris. He went to see the statue of the poet and statesman Lamartine, who in 1848 had helped abolish French colonial slavery; he climbed to the top of Notre Dame and wondered at its grinning gargoyles; he “[walked] the streets of that splendid city and [spent] days and weeks in her charming art galleries.”2 No sooner had he left Paris than Douglass thought about coming back.

In October 2018, more than a hundred scholars from North America, Great Britain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Spain, and Japan converged on the French capital for a three-day conference on “Frederick Douglass Across and Against Times, Places, and Disciplines.” Organized by a team of literary scholars and historians teaching at various French institutions, the conference was part of a wide array of events and activities that took place on both sides of the Atlantic to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. No aspect of Douglass’s life and works was left unexplored: his (sometimes conflictual) relations with reformers and radicals such as Henry Bibb, Susan B. Anthony, John Brown and Robert Purvis; the “Black worlds” which he navigated; his literary influences and passion for photography; his postbellum career and life-long interest in the fate of the Haitian republic; his political philosophy and the “limitations of his freedom vision”; the translation and reception of his writings outside of the United States; his legacy in the twenty-first century. For the closing roundtable, participants were asked to think in terms of the future (or futures) of Douglass studies. This week’s online forum prolongs the discussions that were initiated at the conference and in particular during the roundtable. Over the next few days, we will feature essays from seven scholars—P. Gabrielle Foreman (University of Delaware), Brigitte Fielder (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Ronald Angelo Johnson (Texas State University), Robert Levine (University of Maryland), Kay Wright Lewis (Howard University), Douglas Egerton (Le Moyne College), and Ezra Greenspan (Dedman College, Southern Methodist University) —suggesting new ways of reading, understanding, and ultimately defamiliarizing Douglass.

“Douglass’s autobiographical writing is often extremely self-centered,” David Blight argues in his new biography of Douglass, “drawing hard boundaries around his sole character—himself as the melodramatic self-made hero.” Yet Blight alludes to the reformer’s “supporting cast” of students at the Sabbath school Douglass organized when he was still enslaved.3 The contributions to this forum all point to the same need to reexamine Douglass, not as an exceptional and isolated figure, but rather as a man who relied on and drew strength from the different affinities and networks he chose to enter throughout his life. Douglass was not simply “a leader” but also “a collaborator” and a man who “learn[ed] from others” (Levine). Likewise, the essays question Douglass’s status as an American icon—a figure with unambiguous contours to be unconditionally saluted as part of the national pantheon. Rather than celebrating the acclaimed author of the most famous slave autobiography and the greatest antislavery oration, they present us with a multifaceted and sometimes frustratingly elusive presence. The impulse behind this forum, then, is not so much the desire to take down Douglass’s statue as the realization that we need to challenge Douglass’s imperial self as constructed by himself and, possibly, in spite of himself.

Foreman, for instance, emphasizes the “multidirectional relationships” that Douglass shared with Black colleagues and peers, thus drawing attention to the “Black contexts” of his life and work. In her reading, Douglass becomes one member among others in a Black network of still mostly unacknowledged activists, editors, writers, educators, politicians—and diplomats, Johnson adds. Together these men and women developed a “Black collective authorship” (Foreman) and a “diplomacy of Blackness” (Johnson). What is at stake here is no less than a reconceptualization of Douglass’s sense of self. Douglass’s persona, which he patiently and skillfully crafted through his literary and photographic portraits, proves a thicker surface than it may have seemed, nourished with others’ energies, haunted by other faces. No longer the one-dimensional representative figure of Black struggle, Douglass proves an unstable self both diachronically and synchronically.

Reading Douglass “across times” also means experimenting with “a loosening of chronology” (Greenspan). It means “slow[ing] down the relentless forward movement of time typical of Douglass biographical studies” (Levine)—or resisting a mimetic understanding of Douglass which takes for granted his teleologically inflected vision of history and self—to adopt approaches that may differ from Douglass’s own. Thus Fielder asks if we can “look beyond the iconic Douglass to see the child Frederick” and read his Narrative as a narrative of enslaved childhood. Adopting a more episodic reading of Douglass’s life and attending to shorter or alternative periodizations (Egerton) requires that we favor a more “latitudinal” grasp of Douglass’s life (Greenspan) that will in turn prompt critics and historians to think relationally—for example, taking into account Douglass’s cross-sectional enlarged family as part of his own biography, and so doing, “introducing a fuller array of agents, places, and events that combine to form a more nearly composite whole” (Greenspan).

This approach involves not only recovering new archives and reaching out to new contemporaneities, but also jumping over entire periods of time and creating uncanny resonances between the past we thought we knew and the present we fail to grasp. Fielder reads our somber present as a continuation of Douglass’s times to illuminate the “theft of childhood” in the days of slavery and today, while Lewis understands the present of “Black extermination” as continuous with Douglass’s present of fear and struggle. Taking up the phenomena of “cellular memory and generational memory, whereby all traumatic experiences are absorbed by the cells throughout the body and are passed down generationally,” Lewis proposes a radical version of Greenspan’s cross-generational history-as-biography and extends it to the history of the Black community at large.

Should we be worried that this renewed sense of continuity across times will throw us again into the traps of exceptionalism? The answer, we believe, is no. Reading Douglass across times and places privileges connectedness over uniqueness and helps us situate Douglass in a continuum that is also a web of complexities and unsolved inquiries. The “contextual richness” of synchronic readings includes “those that can be ironically skeptical,” Levine argues. More importantly, reading Douglass across times and places forces us to embrace a degree of contingency and uncertainty that guarantees that the story we tell is ever incomplete.

*“Frederick Douglass Across and Against Times, Places, and Disciplines” (October 11-13, 2018) was organized by Claire Bourhis-Mariotti (Université Paris 8), Agnès Derail (École normale supérieure), Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3), Claire Parfait (Université Paris 13), Hélène Quanquin (Université de Lille), Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Diderot) and Michaël Roy (Université Paris Nanterre). We would like to thank Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, Agnès Derail, Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry and Claire Parfait for their help in editing the contributions to this forum.

Hélène Quanquin is Professor of American Studies at Université de Lille, where she teaches American history. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American reform movements and their intersections. Follow her on Twitter @HQuanquin.

Cécile Roudeau is Senior Researcher at Université Paris Diderot and currently a visiting scholar at The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Her first book (Presses Universitaires Paris Sorbonne, 2012) revisits the notion of “place” in New England regionalist writing, and argues that “taking place” was as much a political and epistemic claim as a spatial experience. Follow her on Twitter @cecileroudeau1.

Michaël Roy is Associate Professor of American Studies at Université Paris Nanterre, France. He is the author of Textes fugitifs. Le récit d’esclave au prisme de l’histoire du livre (Fugitive Texts: Slave Narratives in Antebellum Print Culture, 2017), which investigates the publication, circulation, and reception of antebellum slave narratives, and the co-editor of Undoing Slavery: American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective, 1776-1865 (2018).  Follow him on Twitter @mroyUPN.

  1. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881), 328; David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 318.
  2. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske, 1892), 713. See Theodore Stanton, “Frederick Douglass in Paris,” The Open Court 1, no. 6 (Apr. 1887): 151-53.
  3. Blight, Frederick Douglass, 69.
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