Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on (or around) Valentine’s Day in 1818. In his 70-odd years of life, he escaped his captivity, became one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery, and ultimately lived to see its abolishment. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Douglas was reputed to have received the late president’s favorite walking stick from his widow.
It’s said that history is written by the winners. History is also written by those in power, those with privilege, those who have not been disenfranchised. Douglass was a counter-point to that trend, writing two autobiographies and becoming a great enough orator that his voice could not be ignored completely. Few of his brothers and sisters in bondage would have been able to read, but Douglass, born into that life, was an accomplished writer.
White slaveholders and defenders of slavery were using everything from scriptural interpretation to bad science to protect their interests in that “most unusual institution” of the American South. One of their major arguments was that black slaves were clever animals, not actually capable of human intelligence. Douglass, smarter than all of them, demolished that argument simply by existing, but he took the time to explain exactly what was wrong with treating people as property – you know, for the slower students.
I think it’s worth noting how truly exceptional an individual Douglass really was. There’s a kind of historical chauvinism where we look back at places, times and events in history, with our 20/20 hindsight, modern education and all the benefits of being born now, rather than just about any other point in the past. People say, “why didn’t the Jews fight back when they were being carted off to Auschwitz?” or “I never would have put up with being a slave.” They also take the moral high ground: “I never would have supported Hitler” and “I wouldn’t have been a plantation owner.”
The truth is that now and in the past, most of us tend to follow the path of least resistance and do whatever everyone else is doing. Questioning the status quo is something the more thoughtful among us do, and actually doing something about it? You have to be rather courageous to blaze a trail for social change. No one wants to be the first to step out of line.
Amidst a chorus of praise for Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest opus, there are a few dissenting voices. The screenplay’s first draft (written in 2001) actually focused on the friendship between the president and Douglass, but after rewrites and casting and filming, somehow this crucial black leader ended up disappearing from the movie. It wasn’t only Douglass whose contributions were written out of this story. According to historian Kate Masur, an active and well-organized black political presence in the DC area that the real Lincoln would have been well-acquainted with in the months leading up to his death are also conspicuously absent from the film.
There’s a degree of revisionist history here, which scholars of the last several decades have been working to correct. The traditional version of what happened is that important white people, like Lincoln, had a crisis of conscience, decided slavery was wrong, and, after one bloody war, presented freedom to African Americans as a gift on a silver platter. But of course Lincoln, while he did fight to end slavery by peaceful means for most of his career leading up to the Civil War, was also very clear about his priorities.
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.
Douglass himself was critical of Lincoln for being so late to the game with emancipation, so while he called him the greatest American president (and he may still be the greatest president, to date), it may have been at least somewhat along the lines of democracy not being a very good system, but better than all the alternatives. Yes, in the end he got the job done, but far from being a white knight, riding to moral rescue at any cost, he was a decent but very human individual who understood politics, made compromises and took those final crucial steps only when he was forced to. So how come Lincoln gets a movie and Douglass doesn’t even get a bit part in it?
I have my suspicions. Certainly, Kate Masur got at some of it. But Douglas is at an additional disadvantage. Fairly critical of the church, and basically non-religious, especially when compared to figures like MLK or Malcolm X, many Americans may be a little less apt to put Douglass in a heroic role.
The film Agora, a period piece set in the Ancient Roman Empire, struggled to find a U.S. release, for seemingly much the same reason. Hypatia, an atheist, was martyred by early Roman Christians. Though it was well over a thousand years ago, modern U.S. Christians, it seemed, weren’t eager to cheer on the faithless while the bad guys are religious nuts.
So Douglass, a fighter for equal rights, is even still being discriminated against today. Ironically, he was so far ahead of his time that even with all the strides we’ve made with respect to race, he’s managed to bait an entirely different sort of prejudice. Maybe one day we’ll be able to leave prejudices of all kinds behind us.