While reading biographies, the foes of presentism, bias, and reductionism lurk ever-present. Meanwhile, the muses of inspiration, understanding, and hope sing within the pages. As we consider the life of someone who is beautifully human, reverence is needed at the highest order. Studying history and its significant figures serve not simply as an understanding of the past but connects us with the present milieus and the future possibilities. Woe to the history teacher whose lead foot is the rote memorization of timelines. Praise be to the creative shepherd who creates something like a hip-hop inspired musical out of a founding father’s biography. History comes alive, and thus a useful voice for the present. For, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, “If we don’t forget the things of the past, they will serve as guides for the future.”
I commend David Blight’s opening charge to the reader in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Frederick Douglass. He writes, “How Americans react to Douglass’s gaze, indeed how we gaze back at his visage, and more importantly, how we read him, appropriate him, or engage his legacies, informs how we use our past to determine who we are” (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, xiii.) Read. Appropriate. Engage.
How do we read Douglass? Thoughtfully, openly and paradoxically. Is he a spokesperson for the right championing black self-reliance and individualism? Is he a prophet for the left touting multiculturalism? We ask “Whose Douglass?”, which “is a modern question rife with meaning” (xvi). The human life and soul is far more than a pigeon hole will allow room. Reading the complexities of thought and action of a man like Frederick Douglass creates pause when viewing (and judging) other’s beautifully human inconsistencies.
How do we appropriate Douglass? Carefully and with nuance. Upon review of Douglass’s life, James Baldwin wrote, “Frederick Douglass was first of all a man – honest within the limitations of his character and his time, quite frequently misguided, sometimes pompous, gifted but not always a hero, and no saint at all” (xv). A reductionist view of Douglass (or anyone for that matter), would be irresponsible and misleading.
How do we engage Douglass’s legacies? Boldly and without a whisper, for “Douglass was no whisperer” (97). Determining who I am and how I sing in harmony with Douglass’s orations stand as guiding concerns as I begin engagement with this image-bearer.
The role of a global leader is to dream of alternative future realities by asking “What if?” and rallying towards that dream. These dreams, however, must be rooted in the past, informed by history, and inspired by leaders who have gone before us. Reading, appropriating, and engaging Douglass’s legacies extend his life, his voice, and his prophecies to the present and into the future.
David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).