Friday, August 17, 2018

Mystic, Connecticut

I'm off to Mystic, Connecticut, today for the roundtable on Mystic history at Groton Public Library tomorrow.

Douglass actually spoke in the area a few times, mostly in 1868. That makes complete sense, 1868 being an election year and Connecticut tending toward Republican. On December 19, 1867, he spoke in New London, the city that first harbored -- or would that be incarcerated? -- the Africans on the Amistad. The old Customs House even has a marker to the incident. Steven Spielberg filmed many of the outdoor, dock scenes of Amistad at Mystic Seaport; and if you want to see stars in the eyes of shipbuilders, ask the guys down at the Seaport shipyard about building the replica. The pure joy that would come over their faces!

To give you an idea of how close the two places are, when I worked at Mystic Seaport, I lived in New London and the commute was maybe 30 whole minutes from my front door to my desk, with stop lights and a bad attitude.

Douglass did not go home for Christmas that year, because he traipsed through parts of Massachusetts then back to Mystic on January 4, 1868. He went up the Connecticut River to Suffield, Connecticut, then over to Bridgeton, New Jersey, and Newburyport, Massachusetts, (birthplace of William Lloyd Garrison) after that. Such a wide range, all on rivers and near coasts, all within a week, suggest he travelled by boat. Then -- boom! -- Bath, New York, in the Finger Lakes seven days later and westward to the Old Northwest. A shift to the train.

He turned back to New England the following autumn, speaking to the YMCA at Armory Hall in Westerly, R.I., on November 30, which is really just right next door to Mystic, and then back to New London the next day and just north to Norwich on December 2. Norwich, he may or may not have known, was the birthplace of David Ruggles, his savior in New York City during his first 24 hours of freedom.

(I want to say that I've been to the Westerly Armory Hall, I think to watch that Billy Goat Boyfriend practice with his band in the basement, so I tried to block it all out.)

Douglass did not go back to that part of Connecticut until December 30, 1875, not an election year, but on the eve of a very important one, the one that ultimately ended Reconstruction in the South. I don't have much evidence that he travelled that way before the Civil War, but then the Stonington line was the last stretch of the coastal railroad line built, completed in 1858. Most of his attention in southern New England stayed around Providence and New Bedford before he shifted to New York. He was very strategic in the use of his powers.

Going where Douglass went, however, is always quite nice. I wonder what he saw and where he stayed, what he thought of a seaside town, himself having spend so much time among shipbuilders in his youth. This sort of attachment to a subject is one of the reasons I am so at loose ends now that this book is done, leaving me too jangled to settle into the next and feeling a bit like I have a post-partum depression (not that I know what that actually is like).

One last story about Douglass and Mystic: Mystic Seaport was the first place where I saw caulking, the job Frederick Bailey trained to do in Baltimore. Loud, smelling of pine pitch and hemp rope (no, not hemp like that!) and watery air, the moment seemed a bit like time-travel, seeing this old skill in practice with period tools on a ship old enough that Douglass himself could have worked on the original boards, and thinking of him doing the same.

ETA: Read more here, including a link to tomorrow's podcast of the event.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Douglass at the 2018 State Fair

Beginning next Wednesday, August 22, 2018, the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark, John Brown Lives, the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State will host a series of events at the New York State Fair here in Syracuse, the "Convention City" of the nineteenth century.

One set of programs commemorates the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial:

Wed., Aug. 22, 3:00 p.m.:  1850 Fugitive Slave Convention: Douglass and Smith, Hugh C. Humphreys.

Sat., Aug. 25, 2:00 pm: Drama: A Time in the Life of Frederick Douglass, Shields Green, and a Woman Called Moses, Akwaaba Players.

Sun., Aug. 26, 2:00 pm: Equality Day: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought (me!) -- Cancelled due to out-of-town family emergency.

Mon., Aug. 27, 2:00 pm: The Innocence of Experience: Fanny Seward in Her Own Words, Maria Coleman

Tues., Aug. 28, 2:00 pm: Conserving Frederick Douglass, Tom Hunter

Wed., Aug. 29, 2:00 pm: 1850 Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Convention: Douglass & Smith, Hugh C. Humphreys

Thurs., Aug. 30, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass in Chautauqua County: Researching the Underground Railroad in NYS, Karen Livsey

Fri., Aug. 31, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass and Other Friends of Timbuctoo, Martha Swan

Sat., Sept. 1, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass, Quakers, and Reform in Upstate New York, Judith Wellman

Sun., Sept. 2, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass and Quakers, and the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse, Reginald Neale

Mon., Sept 3, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass, Quakers, and Reform in Upstate New York, Judith Wellman

All events will be held in the Empire Theater in the Arts & Home Center, circled in blue below.:

The Underground Railroad Consortium program has scheduled these events:
I confess that I haven't been to a State Fair since the 1986 Texas State Fair, although I've been to smaller county fairs once or twice since then. (I went to one with a boyfriend of the time who seemed a bit too fascinated with the billy goats, which should have been my first clue that something wasn't right about him, like attracting like and all. He's someone else's problem now, thank heavens!) I'm kind of excited to see what it is all about, what with my memories of quilts and Cinderella's carriage-sized pumpkins and such. I hope to see butter-making, or sculptures, anyway. 

I digress. 

The State Fair hails the beginning of the semester, which means anything not involving the classroom falls by the wayside from lack of time and lack of energy. My energy has been sorely taxed of late already, too. Still, the Paris conference beckons in early October, as well as a pass through London that includes Othello. With luck, I shall have the data to post on those from there. Otherwise, the next post may not appear for yet another year. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Douglasses in Venice, 18-19 May 1887

Douglass's glide past the "house where Desdemoni resided when wooed by Othelo," came amid a two days, and a quick passage in his travel diary, of Venetian splendors. He visited the city on May 18-19, 1887, and wrote on May 21st, while in Milan.:

"The ride from Florence to Venice was delightful. The weather was neither too hot nor too cold, and bright sunshine gave a lustre to the snow crowned Appenines and set them off attractively and imposingly."

"As to Venice itself I can only say it surpassed all the ideas I had formed of it."
"It is a city by itself."
"I had read of its canals,..."
"...its Gondolas,..."
"...its Rialtos,..."
"...its palaces,..."
"...and its wonders of art,..."
"...and its churches,..."

"...and was prepared to look upon all with admiration,..."
"...but had after small comprehension of its charms..."

"The Square in front of St. Mark..."

"...that monarch..."

"...of churches..."
"...flancked by the Doge's Palace..."
"...and arcades on the other..."

"...once seen will never be forgotten, and will always fill the mind with peculiar pleasure."

"In looking at Venice as it is, with the marks of decay upon it,..."
"...though still in many respects the most beautiful of cities..."
"....but we easily think of what it must have been in the days of its [glory]...."
"...when it was the city of Merchant Princes,..."
"...and had control of the rich commerce of all the East,..."
"...when it was a free Republic."

"I saw its Biblotyc containing acres of volumes, and precious manuscripts. Among these I saw letters from three great Americans, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamen Franklin." 

"On the great canal, I saw the house where Desdemoni resided when wooed by Othelo." 

"No where else than in Venice is glass manufactured into more perfect forms of beauty."

"Where climate, sea and sky are so beautiful..." is not strange...
"…that they should suggest beauty to the artificers..." all kinds of works."

Source: Frederick Douglass, Travel Diary, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Read about Douglass's Radical Friend, Amy Post

Since I seem to be on a roll highlighting authors, why not keep going with one I meant to mention when the book first arrived in my mailbox? Nancy A. Hewitt's Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds.

Hewitt wrote an fantastic study of Rochester's reforming women, Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872, that was one of those earlier important studies of women's political behavior and of the ways that the antislavery movement functioned and fit among other social movements. One of the figures at the center of several networks in that study was Amy Kirby Post. Amy Kirby Post was also a key figure in Douglass's career, being instrumental in his move to Rochester to establish his paper. 

Post and her husband Isaac (but most she) always found the vanguard of any organization. They were not just Friends, but Hicksite Friends, and then left the Hicksites because the Hicksites were not bold enough in denouncing slavery. Then they became some of the first Spiritualist. (Douglass thought this was nonsense and had to apologize to them when he was a bit rude during a séance.) They went to the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention and signed the Declarations of Sentiment. Amy Post not only helped Douglass, but also helped Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl find a publisher, and she helped people fleeing the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. She remained a Garrisonian as Douglass became more political, and they had a parting of the ways, but she was always -- I thought -- one of the most decent figures in all of the intra-abolitionist squabbles. 

For the longest time, the only biography of Post was an article written by Hewitt for the University of Rochester Library Bulletin. So, much was the joy when the University of North Carolina Press published her book-length biography of Post this year. Hewitt has teased out an extensive web of family and religious ties that extend from Long Island to Western New York and beyond.  Post's alienation from Douglass in the late 1850s meant that she had more contact with the figures who dropped out of his story, which, taken with Post's other reform activities, means that Hewitt describes a whole sets of women who either ended up on the cutting room floor or didn't come near my book, as much as I would have liked them to. Harriet Jacobs and Lucy Colman being two. 

So, reading Radical Friend is reading an expanded universe of Douglass, but it is also the story of an honestly good woman with incredible inner steel.

The Isaac and Amy Kirby Post Family Papers live at the University of Rochester, which also has a digitized project, a godsend to researchers who cannot visit. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Next Book?

I have two book ideas for the future. One has absolutely nothing to do with Douglass and will probably be the one that takes precedent. The other, well, I may toy with it for a while and I'm not sure that I am the person to write it. I'm not sure that my mind works in the way it should to make the book what it should be. Still, the questions embedded in the book -- and the desire to have someone pay me to follow in Douglass's footsteps -- keep rattling around in my head.

This book idea is Douglass on the Grand Tour. Have I mentioned it? This was the reason for some of those posts from his travel diary last year. From 1886-1887, Douglass and his second wife, Helen embarked upon the Grand Tour of Europe. This journey took them through England, France, Italy, and Greece, and they made a detour through the Suez Canal and up the Nile River in order to, as Douglass put it, “determine if the pyramids were built by the ancestors of white or black people.” While much Douglass literature has focused on his tours of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the two decades before the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), and some have considered his interest in Egypt, little scholarship has seriously considered the purpose or importance of Douglass, an African-American travelling through Europe with his white wife at that particular moment in the history of race and ethnology.

On the scholarship, let me clarify: little scholarship that I know of in my admittedly limited scouting thus far. I do know that Robert Levine wrote about Douglass's Roman trip, and there is a growing body of literature on African Americans travelling abroad. This would also have to fit in with Douglass's later and earlier sojourns to the Caribbean. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Grand Tour of the European continent represented the pinnacle of intellectual sophistication which tourist acquired through encounters with the great art and artifacts of ancient civilizations claimed by Europe. Many American used the opportunity both to connect themselves to the vestiges of this heritage and to contrast the monarchies of Europe with the democracy of the United States. Douglass participated in this ritual, but he also occupied a more complicated position in relation to Euro-centric ideas of "civilization" and American exceptionalism.

Douglass contrasted the monarchical and Roman Catholic influences of Europe unfavorably with the greater democracy and secularism of the U.S., but he found less racism, particularly in the social acceptance of his interracial marriage. He also searched for signs of others from the African diaspora, hoping to challenge the racial determinism aimed at former slaves in the United States by contrasting American racial prejudice with what he perceived as its absence in Europe. Yet, he did this while European nations justified their imperial "Scramble for African" as the "White Man's Burden." 

This quest for African influences developed as he travelled further south, noting folkways closer to the Mediterranean that resembled those he recalled from slavery, and led him to venture to the African continent. His purpose in visiting the pyramids, which he climbed only weeks after his seventieth birthday, was a response to the nineteenth-century, pro-colonial, anthropological debates that refused to recognize Egypt as African in order to cast Africans and their descendants as inherently incapable of creating great civilizations.

I'm still toying with ideas -- or perhaps gathering ingredients since my metaphor is actually that this is all half-baked. Heck, it's hardly half-mixed at this point. Whenever I am in Europe, especially outside of northern Europe, with my own awareness of my own internal, racial classification systems and the ways that they formed, I wonder at theirs. This year Spain intrigued me because of its history in the Americas, and the byzantine racial history of the U.S. southwest. Douglass walked in with his own racial history and context at a different period in Europe's racial history, which was more clearly tied up with nationalism. How did he experience it? In the breach between the two contexts -- Europe and the U.S. -- what nuances can we see in both, or at least in U.S. racial history?

I'm not sure that I have the tools to tell that story; but I will keep thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

HAS Online Roundtable: The Captive's Quest for Freedom by Richard Blackett

Historians Against Slavery has hosted an online roundtable on Richard J. M. Blackett's The Captive's Quest for Freedom.

Contributors include:
Editor Hannah-Rose Murray (University of Nottingham)
Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie (Howard University)
Simon Newman (University of Glasgow)
H. Robert Baker (Georgia State University)
Martha S. Jones (John Hopkins University)
Elizabeth R. Varon (University of Virginia).
Response from: Richard Blackett (Vanderbilt University)

When I first moved north from Texas nearly twenty years ago, the first thing I noticed was that every place prided themselves on being a stop on the Underground Railroad (and the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, but that was particular to Indiana, where I first lived). No matter the founding of the town or the construction of a house, if it lay between the Ohio River and the Canadian border or had a cellar, closet, or crawl space, you could be sure that was a sign that runaway slaves had hidden there. After a while, I began to wonder about this, especially when the logistics and logic did not seem to hold up, much less any real documentation. Oral tradition usually ended right about 1890. Also, if every town north of slavery, and sometimes even south of the dividing line, helped as many people escape bondage as they claimed, well, the South would have hemorrhaged so much of their labor force that their economy would have collapsed.

And, good lord! Don't get me started on the damn quilts!

Of course, a combination of factors were at work here. Part was a largely white population wanting to rewrite their past, changing it from outright hostility or, at best, ambivalence toward African Americans and slavery. Part was an African American population that largely did not escape for very real reasons of family, fear of the unknown, and complete absence of opportunity or means. People often tell themselves the stories that they want to hear.

At the same time, people did run from enslavement, and their pursuit of freedom had consequences not explored in the limited world of the Underground Railroad mythology. There was, after all, a reason for the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Fugitive Slave Act played a role in the growing sectional tension and popular attitudes about slavery, which affected voting behavior.

Prof. Richard J. M. Blackett
In The Captive's Quest for Freedom, Richard J. M. Blackett looks at hundreds of these runaways and the ripple effect that they had upon national policy. As he says in his response, "on a national scale these escapes seem relatively insignificant, placing only a slight dent in the system’s ability to function. But looked at locally, what I call the politics of scale, the decision of a slave to leave mattered."

He analyzes not only the ways that the decision of a minority of people fleeing a massive institution influenced their masters to change the laws, but also those who sympathized with the fugitives (or freedom-seekers, it really is a matter of perspective) to mobilize against the law. Blackett explains it all much more eloquently:
Building outwards from the local provides an opportunity to appreciate the levels to which opponents went to contest and undermine the law. Black communities turned up at commissioners’ hearings to support the accused and intimidate commissioners. Other times they openly resisted enforcement of the law. Many times, their actions were reinforced by abolitionist organizations who offered legal aid and comfort to escapees. These “constitutional actors,” as Baker calls them, provide us with opportunities to explore the nature of pressure from without that is how those without recognized political power can influence what transpires in state and national legislatures. This issue has long been an interest of mine, and the action of the men and women who declared their undying opposition to the law, and acted on it, lies at the heart of the book.
If you would like something shorter to assign to a class, you might be interested in Blackett's Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery, which was developed from the Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era that he gave while writing The Captive's Quest for Freedom. 

Oh, and might I add that Richard Blackett was my advisor in graduate school? He pretty much saved my life in a miserable situation, and he has trained some clever and brilliant scholars in whose company I am honored to be included.

Historians Against Slavery was founded by James Brewer Stewart, a historian of the antislavery movement, in 2011 as "a community of scholar-activists who contribute research and historical context to today’s antislavery movements in order to inspire and inform activism and to develop collaborations that empower such efforts."

Monday, August 6, 2018


[Saturday] 21 May [1887], Douglass Travel Diary,
 Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress
When he found a moment to jot down his Venetian adventures, Douglass made sure to note, "On the great canal, I saw the house where Desdemoni resided when wooed by Othelo."

Although Othello and Desdemona were fictional creations and Shakespeare himself most likely never visited Venice himself, English visitors to the city had delighted in finding the site depicted in the play. In this case, the Palazzo Contarini-Fasan served as the location. 

(The picture that I have here is not the Palazzo, which appears as a sliver to the right of the luxurious mansion that I captured. I was working with a nineteenth-century Baedeker and no internet, so I had to guess. I did go around to the alley and get a picture of the doorway where Iago taunted Desdemona's father with all sorts of lewd suggestions, just to round things out.)

Not the Pal. Contarini-Fasan, 2017
Douglass sailed past this site, perhaps more than once on May 18 and 19, 1887, with Helen by his side. Seventy (or so he believed) and a himself a veteran of many of his own battles, he could identify with the Moor in other ways than a taboo, white wife. Of course, some will quickly point out the tragic ending of that tale, but here Douglass focuses on the beginning of the romance, reflected also in a print of the same wooing that the Douglasses placed above the fireplace in the parlor at Cedar Hill. Desdemona's adoring gaze in that image reflects Helen's in the famous portrait of the second Douglass marriage.

Behind the Pal. Contarini-Fasan, 2017
Douglass had seen a production of Othello almost exactly 18 years earlier sometime between May 10 and16, 1869. Then, his companion had been Ottilie Assing, along with her landlords the Frauensteins and their friends the Riottas. Never one to miss either the irony or the opportunity to tweak racial hypocrisy, he probably enjoyed the discomfort of fellow audience members seeing a formidable and elegant black man in white company, clearly the chaperone of a white lady. With the 14th Amendment hotly debated in Congress and at the Equal Rights Association meetings during the day, this exercise of the civil right of free association took on added importance.
Print of a painting of Othello wooing Desdemona, 
West Parlor, Cedar Hill, FDNHP

The performance may have enamored him less if it did not outright offend him. Assing proclaimed it "amazingly beautiful" and the lead "splendid" ("grossartig schone" and "vortrefflicher"). The reviewer at the New York Herald, on the other hand, proclaimed the star "the worst Othello we have ever seen outside an amateur performance." Whatever the quality of the performance, as was the case in most productions since the Bard's day, a white man played the lead in blackface. (The first Othello that I ever saw was a 1980s BBC production with Anthony Hopkins in blackface - ouch! I couldn't finish watching.) In this case, Edwin Booth, brother of that Booth and owner of the theater situated on 23rd Street at 6th Avenue (don't look for it today).

Douglass would probably have preferred to see Paul Molineaux Hewlett in the part. Hewlett would have been the youngest Othello on Broadway (before there was a Broadway) being only thirteen in 1860. Ira Aldridge would also have been a better choice, but he had died two years earlier. What Douglass thought of Booth, he kept to himself. Even the usually effusive Assing, who could not pass up an opportunity to parrot Douglass, did not mention his opinion.

If only Douglass could visit London now. The Shakespeare Globe's production of Othello stars Mark Rylance as Iago and Andre Holland in the title role and plays through October 13. I will be in London for a wedding at that time, so I have the great fortune to see it. Then, we will be off for the "Frederick Douglass across and against Times, Places, and Disciplines" in Paris, which has an engaging program of international scholars. Seeing Othello beforehand seems rather appropriate.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass at the National Constitution Center

When you write biography, you have made a choice to look at a period of time through the life of a particular person. As you get into that person's life, you make more choices about emphases. The longer the life, the further the figure's influence, the decisions that you have to make in order to shape a narrative and, ultimately, an argument about that person's life and times multiply exponentially. I always think of people as living in three and even four dimensions, but writers can only render lives in one or two -- that being the line of the sentence on the page. The more elements of a person's life that you choose to include, the more difficult the task becomes. 

Thus, I focused on Douglass and women, and even that path has detours and branches yet to be explored. Other historians will choose particular periods of their subject's life, such as Douglass's time in Ireland and England or the ways that his autobiographies were shaped or his formative years. Still others will narrow down the choice by placing their subject in tandem with another. A few years ago, Douglass and Abraham Lincoln was a popular pairing.

David Blight (one of the most generous scholars you could meet) has been working on one of those long, multi-dimensional biographies of Douglass and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom will be out this October to much well-deserved acclaim. (Pre-order now!) Much like Big Picture histories, these full-life biographies are also necessary in pulling together articles and focused studies of Douglass to synthesize and survey his life in light of new ideas about him and about the world around him. The last full-length biography of him by William McFeely (which had many problems on its own in its own time, but that's another story) did not have the benefit of much of the scholarship on black abolition or women's and gender history or racial formation that has emerged in the past (oh, dear god, has it really been) nearly thirty years. Indeed, Blight's own work on memory and the Civil War, in which Douglass was a significant figure, informed quite a bit of the historiography in the meantime, which itself has developed beyond Race and Reunion. Blight also has access to so many more documents that add depth and dimension to his reading. It should be a tour de force.

Perhaps the biggest shame here is that there are not more Douglass biographies like this. I think of Helen Douglass, Frederick's second wife, and her efforts to preserve Cedar Hill as the black and interracial Mount Vernon. Her vision, like Douglass's life, still acts as a counterpoint to the one up the Potomac in the ideal of American freedom. We writers and readers still fight that battle when Founding Father biographies flood the market but big Douglass biographies worthy of Barnes & Noble placement are decades between. 

Link to podcast
But, I get away from the point of this post. The National Constitution Center's podcast, The Constitution Daily, has an interview with David Blight and Noelle Trent, focusing on Douglass's evolving interpretations of the Constitution.

Trent has an incredible job, with the website describing her as "director of interpretation, collections and education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Trent earned her doctorate in American history at Howard University, where she also served as a lecturer for 4 years. Her dissertation, 'Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism,' is currently being expanded into a book." Hers should be an interesting study, because Douglass had a conflicted relationship with nationalism, especially in his later decades.

One thing today's audiences easily forget as they look back to someone whom they want to be a hero is that he was trying to figure it all out as he went along. Many ideas about race, nation, and political solutions that we take for granted as being immutable were still in flux. He was trying to find footing on shifting ground and shift it in another direction.

That, too, is another exciting element of writing biography: attempting to see the past as if it were the present and the uncertain future.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Slave's Cause on A House Divided

In an interview with the American Writers Museum, Manisha Sinha, answered the question, "What makes Frederick Douglass's work relevant today?" by saying:
"The story of Frederick Douglass and numerous other fugitive slave abolitionists is really an inspiring one and should be known to most American citizens. In seeking their own freedom enslaved men and women helped bring down an extremely powerful institution and expanded the boundaries of American democracy. I think it tells us that we can all be architects of our own liberation and confront oppression and injustice in our own times."
Note how she brings in "other fugitive slave abolitionists." One of the limitations of the genre of biography lies in its emphasis on the individual, which can deemphasize or obscure broader, more complex movements, organizations, or groups of people. A biographer might touch on them as her subject interacts with them, but the biographer still must follow her subject. Even in following her subject, she makes choices about the type of story she tells. To me, biography is almost like an experiment in which you watch the ways big ideas, events, and, movements, and so forth -- the Big Picture forces of history -- operate in an individual's life, and how an individual interprets and influences those forces.

For Frederick Douglass, one of those Big Picture historians is Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition, the winner of last year's 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize. For the past two to three decades, historians have chipped away at a "white savior narrative" of abolition that tended to start the story with William Lloyd Garrison. Not that there wasn't some merit to that narrative. After all, Garrison was a crucial figure in popularizing an organized abolition movement to a white, evangelical audience. Members of the Society of Friends also played key roles, and they, too were white. Still, the real impetus, organization, militant, and broad ideologies emerged from the people subjected to enslavement. 

Sinha's book synthesizes the vast body of literature into a full narrative that places African Americans at the center of abolition. She'd object to my characterization of her work as synthesis because she also delved deeply into anti-slavery pamphlets and correspondence, so her work is not solely synthesis. Yet, synthesis is not faint praise but a necessary and monumental task in pulling the conversation forward.

In her work, Douglass appears as one actor in a longer and larger African American-led, interracial movement. "Douglass was extremely important," she says in the interview below, "and he would be the first one to acknowledge others who were part of the movement, and that's why a movement perspective helped me."It's quite exciting to see him that way, rising to his power among all of these other activists.

Listen to her discuss The Slave's Cause on A House Divided podcast, recorded 2 August 2018.
Link to video
By the way, if you are in Chicago and can visit the Writers Museum, the exhibit "Frederick Douglass: Agitator" runs until December 31, 2018 in the Roberta Rubin Writer's Room.