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Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass


Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895), orator, journalist, editor, and autobiographer Frederick Douglass, author of the most influential African American text of his era, rose through the ranks of the antislavery movement in the 1840s and 1850s to become the most electrifying speaker and commanding writer produced by black America in the nineteenth century From the outbreak of the Civil War until his death, Douglass was generally recognized as the premier African American leader and spokesman for his people Douglass's writing was devoted primarily to the creation of a heroic image of himself that would inspire in African Americans the belief that color need not be a permanent bar to their achievement of the American dream, while reminding whites of their obligation as Americans to support free and equal access to that dream for Americans of all races The man who became internationally famous as Frederick Douglass was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore in February 1818, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white man Although he recalls witnessing as a child the bloody whipping of his Aunt Hester by his master, Douglass says in his autobiographies that his early experience of slavery was characterized less by overt cruelty than by deprivations of food, clothing, and emotional contact with his mother and grandmother Sent to Baltimore in 1826 by his master's son-in-law, Thomas Auld, Frederick spent five years as a servant in the home of Thomas Auld's brother, Hugh At first, Hugh's wife Sophia treated the slave boy with unusual kindness, giving reading lessons to Frederick until her husband forbade them Rather than accept Hugh Auld's dictates, Frederick took his first rebellious steps toward freedom by teaching himself to read and write In 1833 a quarrel between the Auld brothers brought Frederick back to his home in Saint Michaels, Maryland.

Tensions between the recalcitrant black youth and his owner convinced Thomas Auld to hire Frederick out as a farm worker under the supervision of Edward Covey, a local slave breaker After six months of unstinting labor, merciless whippings, and repeated humiliations, the desperate sixteen-year-old slave fought back, resisting one of Covey's attempted beatings and intimidating his tormentor sufficiently to prevent future attacks Douglass's dramatic account of his struggle with Covey would become the heroic turning point of his future autobiographies and one of the most celebrated scenes in all of antebellum African American literature In the spring of 1836, after a failed attempt to escape from slavery, Frederick was sent back to Baltimore to learn the caulking trade With the aid of his future spouse, Anna Murray, and masquerading as a free black merchant sailor, he boarded a northbound train out of Baltimore on 3 September 1838 and arrived in New York City the next day Before a month had passed Frederick and Anna were reunited, married, and living in New Bedford, Connecticut, as Mr and Mrs Frederick Douglass, the new last name recommended by a friend in New Bedford's thriving African American community Less than three years later Douglass joined the radical Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement as a full-time lecturer After years of honing his rhetorical skills on the antislavery platform, Douglass put his life's story into print in 1845.

The result, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, sold more than thirty thousand copies in the first five years of its existence After a triumphal twenty-one-month lecture tour in England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass returned to the United States in the spring of 1847, resolved, against the advice of many of his Garrisonian associates, to launch his own newspaper, the North Star Authoring most of the articles and editorials himself, Douglass kept the North Star and its successors, Frederick Douglass's Paper and Frederick Douglass's Monthly, in print from 1847 to 1863 One of the literary highlights of the newspaper was a novella, “The Heroic Slave,” which Douglass wrote in March 1853 Based on an actual slave mutiny, “The Heroic Slave” is regarded as the first work of long fiction in African American literature A rupture of the close relationship between Douglass and Garrison occasioned a period of reflection and reassessment that culminated in Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) Although he had befriended and advised JohnBrown in the late 1850s, Douglass declined Brown's invitation to participate in the Harpers Ferry raid but was forced to flee his Rochester, New York, home for Canada in October 1859 after he was publicly linked to Brown Applauding the election of Abraham Lincoln and welcoming the Civil War as a final means of ending slavery, Douglass lobbied the new president in favor of African American recruitment for the Union Army When the war ended, Douglass pleaded with President Andrew Johnson for a national voting rights act that would give African Americans the franchise in all the states Douglass's loyalty to the Republican Party, whose candidates he supported throughout his later years, won him appointment to the highest political offices that any African American from the North had ever won: federal marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, president of the Freedman's Bureau Bank, consul to Haiti, and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic.

The income Douglass earned from these positions, coupled with the fees he received for his popular lectures, most notably one entitled “Self-Made Men,” and his investments in real estate, allowed Douglass and his family to live in comfort in Uniontown, just outside Washington, DC, during the last two decades of his life His final memoir, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, first published in 1881 and expanded in 1892, did not excite the admiration of reviewers or sell widely, as had his first two autobiographies But the Life and Times maintained Douglass's conviction that his had been a “life of victory, if not complete, at least assured” Life and Times shows Douglass dedicated to the ideal of building a racially integrated America in which skin color would cease to determine an individual's social value and economic options In the last months of his life Douglass decried the increasing incidence of lynching in the South and disputed the notion that by disenfranchising the African American man a more peaceful social climate would prevail throughout the nation Yet Douglass never forsook his long-standing belief that the US Constitution, if strictly and equally enforced, remained the best safeguard for African American civil and human rights.

In the history of African American literature, Douglass's importance and influence are virtually immeasurable His Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom gave the world the most compelling and sophisticated renditions of an African American selfhood seen in literature up to that time Douglass's artistry invested this model of selfhood with a moral and political authority that subsequent aspirants to the role of African American culture hero-from the conservative Booker T Washington to the radical W E B Du Bois—would seek to appropriate for their own autobiographical self-portraits In twentieth-century African American literature, from Paul Laurence Dunbar's brooding poetic tribute “Douglass” (1903) to the idealistic characterization of Ned Douglass in Ernest J Gaines's novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), the criterion for an African American male heroism that uses words as a weapon in the struggle for self- and communal liberation remains the example set by Frederick Douglass.

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