February 27, 2019

Frederick Douglass: A Vision of Freedom Fully and Freely Expressed

By Stuart Mitchner

Early in his monumental bicentennial biography Frederick Douglass:Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster), David Blight pictures Douglass sitting in a small room in Lynn, Massachusetts in the winter of 1844-45 at work on his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Looking back on his time at the mercy of a “slave-breaker” (“I was broken in body, soul and spirit”), he writes of Sunday strolls to a nearby viewpoint from which he would peer out at the ships on Chesapeake Bay. “There,” in Blight’s words, “he would allow himself an occasional burst of imagination, a daydream he would ten years later capture in a beautiful and haunting metaphor of freedom.” Blight calls the brief excerpt that follows “a passage for the ages” that captures “slavery and freedom with artistry unparalleled in the genre of slave narrative.”

In another brief excerpt from the same page-long passage, Douglass “speaks directly to the ships, trying to reenter a teenager’s imagination” with “a psalmlike prayer of deliverance” that renders “in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit.” According to Blight, the prayer ends in language “reminscent of slave spirituals” that makes it possible for “today’s readers” to “stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul along their own Chesapeakes and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls.”

The Real Thing

I didn’t discover how much Blight had left out of his rendering of the Chesapeake vision until I put the biography aside and picked up Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), the last and reportedly least popular of the autobiographies and the only one available at the library, as both the Narrative (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) had been checked out.

By the time I got to the “passage for the ages” that inspired the biographer’s rhapsodic presentation, what I found was less “a dark night of the soul” than a day-bright, exalted, passionate, righteously unhinged performance. I could understand why Blight chose to offer only a fraction of an outpouring so repetitious, wayward, and drunk with yearning. To free up an excerpt that long and that uninhibited might have impeded the flow of the biographical narrative. But surely a passage crying for freedom has a right to be freely and fully expressed. After all, Douglass valued this “burst of imagination” so much that he repeated it word for word almost 30 years later in Life and Times.

The sequence begins as Douglass pictures himself looking out on Chesapeake Bay “in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath,” standing “all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay” and tracing, “with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.” At this point Douglass, in effect, steps forward, like an actor about to deliver a soliloquy (he quotes from one of Hamlet’s in his first book): “The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: —

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free. I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip. You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O, that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on; O, that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone: she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O, God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! — Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it: one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a northeast course from North Point; I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass: I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy yet, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.”

Raging To Be Free

Presumably Douglass was urged by people whose editorial skills he respected to cut some of the exclamatory back and forth, but he knew what he had and he knew that to amend it would be a betrayal of its power. The wonder of it, among wonders, is the exalted immediacy, the way he returns to the moment as a free man raging to be free. Surely what Blight calls “the music of words,” with its jagged, improvisational phrasing and embattled ferocity, at once soaring and sinking, has more in common with jazz than spirituals. To paraphrase such an impassioned flight with commentary, however discreetly, is comparable to a jazz historian introducing a Charlie Parker solo with reference to the “human spirit.” Or a baseball historian holding forth on metaphors of freedom before showing a video of Jackie Robinson stealing home. Or a literary scholar quoting a truncated rhapsody from Moby-Dick after expanding on Melville’s “deepest yearnings.”

Douglass and Melville

Why mention Melville in the last week of Black History Month? In fact, no two giants of 19th century America are better suited to stand side by side in adjoining bicentennial years than Herman Melville (1819-1891) and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). And you don’t have to read far into Melville’s life or work to know how Douglass’s vision of freedom would have affected a man who himself had sailed on the “swift-winged angels that fly about the world,” who had room in his imagination for the crew of the Pequod, and whose book White-Jacket led Congress to abolish flogging in the U.S. Navy. The future author of Benito Cereno would have been struck as well by Douglass’s analogy for his escape “as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate.” It’s also more than likely that Melville read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, a publishing sensation in 1845, even as he was writing his first book, Typee, which would be a best-seller the following year. That Douglass read Melville is borne out by the fact that he reprinted a passage from Typee in his newspaper, the North Star, and later ran articles on Moby-Dick in three different issues of Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

Not least there’s the first chapter of Moby-Dick, where Douglass’s ocean-gazing in the “deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath” is echoed in the “dreamy Sabbath afternoon” during which Ishmael imagines “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”

Melville and Douglass actually did cross paths in New Bedford and Nantucket in 1841, three years after Douglass escaped to freedom with the borrowed papers of “a free American sailor,” who had “a tarpaulin hat and black cravat tied in sailor fashion, carelessly and loosely about his neck,” knew “a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk ‘sailor’ like an old salt.” While Melville was setting sail on the whaling ship Acushnet, Douglass was in Nantucket speaking before the Anti-Slavery Society. Both were also in the Albany area in 1845, Douglass delivering antislavery lectures, with passages from his Narrative appearing in the Evening Journal while Melville was writing Typee. Two years later in New York City Douglass was giving a series of lectures while Melville was living and working nearby. No wonder, then, that they’ve been linked in numerous articles and at least two books, Douglas and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style (2005) by Robert K. Wallace, and Robert Levine and Samuel Otter’s collection, Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation (2008).

The Dream of Freedom

In the powerful closing pages of Prophet of Freedom, Blight sums up his subject: “For decades countless Americans had looked at and listened to Douglass; they had admired and hated him, loved, followed, envied, denounced, and tried to destroy him….He had been gawked at, photographed, and studied; he had won many arguments and lost many others.” Harking back to Douglass’s moment on the banks of Chesapeake Bay, Blight quotes from Robert Hayden’s poem about “this man, this Douglass,” which begins and ends with reference to the dream of freedom, “this beautiful and needful thing,” words Blight repeats in his last sentence as the subject of “our unending search.”

Spike Lee’s Next Joint

Spike Lee ended his Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay on Sunday night with a reference to Black History Month and a jubilant pre-2020-election shout out using the title of his best film, Do the Right Thing. As he paid tribute to the ancestral voices of black history and his great-grandmother’s life as a slave, he may have been thinking ahead to his next joint, a biopic about Frederick Douglass based on Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play, Frederick Douglass NOW.