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Insight: What would Frederick Douglass think?

The legendary abolitionist would be shocked at modern America's attitudes on race

  • 3 min to read
Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Of the two giants the United States produced in the 19th century — Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln — the former, were he to come back to life, would be impressed by the fact that the first African American president had recently been elected, but angered that his successor thought Douglass had not died yet.

On the other hand, his curiosity about the year of his birth would finally be satisfied. In Maryland, where he was born in 1818, the date of birth of a slave was not considered worthy of note, and Douglass always thought he was probably born in 1817.

How someone who was a slave for the first 20 years of his life managed to become the most important abolitionist, President Lincoln’s friend, the author of one of the most celebrated autobiographies ever written, as well as a champion of voting rights for women, among many other accomplishments, is extraordinary.

Douglass would be shocked that almost 200 years after his birth, the country was still in the vice-like grip of racism. After the defeat on the battlefield of the white South in 1865, Douglass assumed black Americans would be granted social equality, but he soon realized the battle for that was nowhere near won. Were he alive now, he might conclude it may never be, although he tried as hard as possible to avoid despair.

Another reason he would likely be worried about the possibility of social equality for all Americans is that he believed power and privilege are never voluntarily relinquished, which means they must be taken away. In the case of Charlottesville, Va., and its aftermath, Douglass would point out that as long as many white people, in many instances unconsciously, continue to regard being white as some kind of notable achievement, social equality for all is unlikely.

As for the controversy over monuments and statues honoring the Confederacy, Douglass, as an uncommonly intelligent person, might well suggest that instead of cloaking, destroying or removing them, they should remain where they are, with the provision that a tribute to an African American be erected nearby, so as to dramatize the untold part of “our history.”

Accordingly, in Jacksonville’s square, for example, the statue of the generic Confederate soldier would be left untouched, but erected nearby would be a statue of an African American soldier who fought for the Union (approximately 180,000 black men fought to end slavery, about 7,000 of them from Alabama).

Douglass would likely take a wry pleasure in a recent poll that indicates many white Americans believe they are not only not more privileged than black Americans but that they are more discriminated against than blacks are; however, he would understand why they feel that way, even in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence. African Americans still serve longer sentences for the same crime than whites do; they still are more likely to be executed for the same crime than whites are; they still are more likely to be turned down for a mortgage loan than whites with similar assets and incomes are; etc.

But Douglass would acknowledge that when assumptions that govern social views are challenged, many people will resist admitting they are wrong about agreeing with these assumptions, and he would also suggest that white people who do not feel privileged should make common cause with other Americans who also feel underprivileged, instead of enforcing boundary lines between groups, as happened in Charlottesville. He knew the divide-and-conquer strategy was crude but had remained effective in the United States for centuries.

A resurrected Douglass would note that in the United States now, as in the 19th century, it is possible to overcome racial and social disadvantages. Beginning life under difficult circumstances, such as not knowing who your father is or when you were born, is not necessarily fatal to chances of success, as Douglass proved in his own life, and as Barack Obama under different disadvantages did in his.

Douglass believed that American history is not a zero-sum game in which for X to get ahead, Y will have to lose something. He thought rather that a society of increasing opportunities would add, not subtract, at least in the long run, to everyone’s chances for success, however apparently endless, wandering and difficult the historical avenue to arrive at that destination.

In addition, were Douglass to return, he could not miss the parallel between President Trump and President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor. Neither our current president nor Johnson could be considered sympathetic to black Americans. Johnson made it painfully clear to Douglass that he had no use whatsoever for black people except as serfs, while Trump has stated there were “good people” among the neo-Nazis and racists demonstrating at Charlottesville. On the other hand, as someone who never stopped agitating for racial justice and equality, Douglass would urge those who believe in that cause to press on.

Among many other changes Douglass would also approve of would be the increasing tolerance for interracial marriage in the United States (Douglass’s first wife was black, his second white), the rise of the black middle class, the growing prominence of African Americans in more and more areas of American life, and the increasing awareness that “race” is not a coherent concept.

On the other side of the scales, though, he would be concerned that race remains a difference that makes a difference, and that there are still, even after the bloodiest war in American history, many Americans who believe that those born with spurs on their boots (largely white Americans) should be allowed to ride on the backs of those who were not (working class blacks and whites, and many other social categories).

Robert Felgar is head of the English department at Jacksonville State University, where he teaches surveys of African American literature and a course in black American literature of the 20th century. His latest book is an annotated edition of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” published by Praeger.

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