February 2018

From Steamship to Phonograph: Frederick Douglass, David Blight, and the Politics of Memory

We may not have to listen to Frederick Douglass, but isn’t it extraordinary that we can choose to do so?  

How many pictures would you guess were taken of the most-photographed nineteenth-century American? A few thousand? Several hundred?

According to David Blight, an eminent professor of US history and memory, the answer is 162. Maybe 163.

I recently learned this staggering fact while watching Professor Blight deliver the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Lecture at the University of Maryland (UMD). His talk, entitled, “‘My Voice, My Pen, My Vote’: Frederick Douglass—Legacies in Our Own Time,” was part of the university’s Douglass 200 initiative, a year-long series marking the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth. While it was indeed surprising to learn that the famous orator and abolitionist was the subject of more photographs than either Lincoln or Twain, I was more impressed with the number: only 162 (or maybe 163) unique images of Frederick Douglass have survived into the present, the majority of which are thoughtful, deliberate portraits.  

There are more than ten times that number of photos of me on Facebook alone, many far from deliberate, and several hundred more aging on shelves and under couches in my parents’ house.  

As the most-photographed nineteenth-century American (and perhaps the most traveled), Frederick Douglass was awash in the technology of his time. He crossed oceans by steamship and countries by railroad. In the last years of his life, he lamented that he was to miss the proliferation of recorded sound. In this essay, I argue that shifting technological landscapes affect not only our ability to study and present the past; they challenge our very ability to empathize with historical actors.

Douglass Blight
The cover of Blight’s forthcoming book. Photo taken by Apple, color emphasized by Google.

Frederick Douglass was never sure of his birthday, but was pretty confident that it was in February. As he welcomed the audience to the bicentennial lecture, historian Ira Berlin joked that this was fitting, as surely Douglass would have wanted his birthday to fall during Black History Month. Blight himself alluded to Douglass’s contemporary relevance through the most intriguing part of his title: “Legacies in Our Own Time.” Surely Douglass at 200 remains just as provocative as he did at 30 or 55.

Arguably the most famous historic Marylander, the state’s flagship university bore no memorial to Douglass until late 2015, when the school installed a powerful statue of him at the center of its busy Hornbake Plaza. Douglass is the principal character in one of Irish writer Colum McCann’s short stories, and his autobiography functions as a talisman of sorts in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Yet perhaps Douglass’s most curious contemporary invocation came just weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump, when the president remarked in the present perfect tense that he has “done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.” (This prompted a delightful response from the local paper in Rochester, NY, which happens to be both Douglass’s and my adopted hometown.) Like all voices of a generation, Douglass’s words echo into the present. It is no wonder Professor Blight considered subtitling his book the “biography of a voice.”

Before introducing Professor Blight, UMD President Wallace D. Loh wondered aloud if Douglass’s legacy might act as a salve for the United States’ wounds. “There are days I wake up wondering if we are in the slow motion decline of the heart and soul of democracy in our country,” Loh lamented. But he took solace in the new statue that welcomes strangers and scholars to his campus, recognizing that the bronze “Douglass points to a dream yet to be fulfilled.” His dream was one of personal and economic dignity, individual opportunity, and community safety that demanded protection from a just and active government.

Douglass statue at UMD, erected in 2015. Image courtesy of D. Jones.

The backdrop for these introductions was a projected image of the cover of Blight’s forthcoming biography, shown above, which features a spectacularly colorized image of a twenty-five-year-old Douglass. When Blight took the podium, however, he spent a few minutes clicking through a dozen slides of Douglass photographs, young and old, ultimately settling on an older, “more leonine” Douglass to preside over his lecture, shown below. 

The Douglass photographs grant us a chance to gaze upon the best and the worst of America’s past. They allow us to look into the face of a man who risked his life to refuse slavery, to obtain an education, and to preach liberation. He was, in the words of Professor Blight, “Jim Crowed more times than you could ever count.” Either despite or because of these obstacles, Douglass lived as a prophet of freedom.

Like other well-regarded historical figures, contemporary pundits and politicians have played games with his legacy. Blight informed the audience that the Cato Institute is publishing a new Douglass biography next month by a Goldwater Institute vice president entitled Self-Made Man, a reference to a famous speech that Douglass first gave in 1859. At the 2013 unveiling of the Douglass statue at the U.S. Capitol, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell claimed the former slave and defender of the vulnerable as a leader of the Republican Party. They attempted to cast Douglass as a symbol of rugged individualism and Black self-help.

Blight also highlighted similar tactics on the Left. Several Democratic leaders, including Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Majority Leader Reid, used the occasion of the 2013 statue dedication to call for D.C. statehood, citing Douglass’s participation in Washington municipal government. The “neocon-turned-neoliberal” Michael Lind, Blight noted, referred to Douglass as the “greatest American of all time” in the 1990s. As Douglass’s historical reputation continues to climb, so too does his perceived political currency.

Professor Blight holding up the backside of a “Vote Douglass 2020” t-shirt. Photo courtesy of the author.

Throughout his lecture, Professor Blight repeated the phrase “it just depends where you look” to emphasize the fact that Douglass was, in fact, a human being, complete with contradictions. It is true that he was an advocate of classical liberalism. It is also true that he demanded that an activist government intervene to protect Black civil rights, even if it meant infringing upon white economic freedoms. It is true that Douglass was an avid supporter of women’s suffrage and rights. It is also true that he supported the Fifteenth Amendment despite its restriction of the vote to men. Douglass championed both the Irish anti-colonial movement and the U.S. annexation of Santo Domingo. So really it just depends where you look.

This is not to say that Douglass was a hypocrite; the United States is itself a nation of contradictions. According to Blight, “we set ourselves up with creeds and then we violated them all.” The key to understanding Douglass then, Blight argues, is to capture his complexity “but never sidestep his essential radicalism.” This is why it is more honest to point to Douglass as a proponent of D.C. statehood than it is to claim him as a leader of a static Republican Party. The radicals who led that party during the 1860s and ‘70s bear little resemblance to the reactionaries of the present moment.

Professor Blight’s lecture was thoughtful and thought provoking. He argued that we should listen when Frederick Douglass speaks to us in the present. But he also noted the pitfalls of forcing him to speak, which brings me back to the photographs.

This is the 1855 daguerreotype of Douglass that Blight displayed throughout his lecture. Image courtesy of the Washington Post.

I found it shocking that there are only 162 (or maybe 163) unique, extant images of the most-photographed nineteenth-century American. This is surely a failure of my historical imagination, as I found it equally shocking to learn that three generations of my own family had managed to gather for a single portrait in the late 1890s. I am confident that they, as a nineteenth-century audience, would have been able to appreciate the technological achievement that was a lifetime of Douglass images. 

Photographs are a physical reminder of the chasm that separates the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. There are, of course, fundamental and systemic continuities that those of us working toward a more equitable future must take the time to address. Yet it is equally true that the past and present look quite different. We should not support any policy “because Frederick Douglass said so.” Appealing to authority sets a dangerous precedent by discouraging democratic participation and creative problem solving. However, we should consider ourselves fortunate that we are able to consider Douglass’s council—that we have access to his speeches, his autobiographies, and his letters. We may not have to listen to Frederick Douglass, but isn’t it extraordinary that we can choose to do so?  

Professor Blight quipped that Douglass came in with the steamship and went out with the phonograph. In 1894, one year before his death, Douglass wrote an acquaintance in D.C. in order to thank him for playing a phonograph record at dinner the night before: “Could it be true that the human voice could last forever?” Technology has made it so. Yet as Dodge’s highly offensive and distasteful ad—which appropriated a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech to sell trucks during the Super Bowl—reminds us, word can be twisted and weaponized. One antidote to this is to always remember to evaluate words in their original context.

Fortunately for us, Blight concluded, “historians preach context.”

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Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!

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Cory James Young is a History PhD candidate and graduate-student worker at Georgetown University. He received his MA at Georgetown and BA at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Before moving to DC, Cory taught eighth grade Social Studies and English in Pittsford, NY, the Rochester suburb where he grew up. His dissertation, “For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania,” examines how enslavers and their allies propagated a novel system of human bondage during the age of gradual abolition, focusing on the lives and responses of the men and women they enslaved. In addition to his time in the archive and in the classroom, Cory enjoys food, fitness, and justifying the amount he spends on concert tickets. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @coryjamesyoung.

2 comments on “From Steamship to Phonograph: Frederick Douglass, David Blight, and the Politics of Memory

  1. I was the person who challenged Blight in the Q&A because he has built no Douglass scholarly infrastructure.

    Also, Blight is a racist -> Why does Yale Professor David Blight say, he wants to “chain [Frederick Douglass] to a chair”? Blight exposes himself as a closet racist. Entire history community liable. –> https://thelionofanacostia.wordpress.com/2018/04/30/why-does-yale-professor-david-blight-say-he-wants-to-chain-frederick-douglass-to-a-chair-blight-exposes-himself-as-a-closet-racist-entire-history-community-liable/


    • Cory James Young


      I don’t believe it’s incumbent upon David Blight to build an entire “Douglass scholarly infrastructure,” especially when so many folks are doing good work on Douglass. I also don’t believe there needs to be an entire journal devoted to a single person, but if you want to create and sustain one, I’m sure many readers would find it useful.

      It’s a bad metaphor, as Blight himself has acknowledged, but calling him a racist based on that metaphor alone reduces the power of that word.

      Thank you for reading.


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