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Michaël Roy, ed., Frederick Douglass in Context

Nick Bromell
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Michaël Roy, ed., Frederick Douglass in Context, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 450 p., ISBN: 978-1108478731, $110.00 / £85.00.

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1This volume of thirty-two beautifully crafted essays is a most welcome contribution to Douglass studies, one that will prove useful to a wide range of readers, from undergraduates to experts in the field. The essays are of uniformly high quality, more concerned to present facts than arguments, yet they are also rich with fresh insights that open paths to further research on their topics.

2The volume’s purpose is to offer new contexts for the study of Douglass, and its approach is thematic rather than chronological. As the volume’s editor Michaël Roy explains, “by taking a thematic rather than chronological approach, this volume attempts to resist a mimetic understanding of Douglass that takes his teleological vision of history and self for granted and instead reimagines him in the light of both familiar and forgotten contexts” (3). The volume’s proliferation of contexts and its emphasis on themes are indeed refreshing, both because they enliven the field and resist Douglass’s own teleological vision, and because they harbor the potential for fracturing the New Historicist assumptions that have become the field’s invisible orthodoxy. But of that, more later.

3The volume is composed of six sections, each with five or six essays. The sections are concerned with “Places,” “Genres,” “Activism,” “Philosophy,” “Networks,” and “Afterlives.” Obviously, such an approach courts a considerable risk of both duplication and randomness. For example, the fine essay on “The Underground Railroad” (by Jesse Olavsky) has been placed in the “Networks” section, yet it could be as fittingly placed instead in the “Activism” section, where we find an essay on “Abolitionism” (by Kellie Carter Jackson). That essay, in turn, might well have included a few paragraphs on the underground railway, but (by design) it does not. Thus, Roy and the contributors have collaboratively done a superb job of avoiding the dangers of a thematic approach by shaping each essay in a way that highlights its pertinence to the section in which we find it.

4Some of the sections are structured by a straightforward logic. In the “Places,” section, for example, all the essays deal with specific geographic locations that figured importantly in Douglass’s life: Baltimore (Lawrence Jackson), The British Isles (Hannah-Rose Murray), Rochester, New York (Nancy A. Hewitt), Washington, DC (John R. McKivigan), Europe and Egypt (Gary Totten), and Haiti (Brandon R. Byrd). Personally, I found this to be one of the most informative sections of the volume. Most of what I know about the places in Douglass’s life I’ve gathered from reading biographies of him. In most of these (Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass may be an exception here), the biographers’ understandable foregrounding of person over place has made it hard for me to retain the considerable amount of geographical information their accounts do provide. In these essays, by contrast, the focus is less on Douglass’s life per se than on certain places as contexts through which he moved. For example, drawing on 1830 US Census Records, Jackson’s splendid essay on Baltimore examines the Fells Point area as a space containing several Black micro neighborhoods: “In 1830, toward the end of Bailey’s boyhood years in Baltimore, there were seventy-seven people of African descent living on Philpot, Block, and Dock Streets—Bailey’s neighborhood—twenty-seven of them free people, including seven black boys in his age category, one of them free” (11). Jackson suggests further that the “black households on Philpot and Block Streets offered a concrete lesson to young Bailey in self-governed liberty. Four free blacks lived with Charles Lawson, and Robert Bond’s household contained three freed elderly black adults” (12).

5Other sections bring together more a more eclectic gathering under one heading. The section on Genre includes essays on Autobiography (Robert S. Levine), Oratory (Bjorn F. Stillion Southard), Journalism (Benjamin Fagan), Fiction (Ivy G. Wilson), and Photography (Autumn Womack). Levine skillfully demonstrates that “Douglass’s autobiographical writings—the books, the lectures, and the essays—can be read in multiple and sometimes conflicting contexts” (83). The main contexts Levine considers are both familiar (Douglass’s relations with Garrison and his views on violence) and relatively fresh (Douglass’s “awareness of whites’ antiblack racism” [88]). In his essay on Douglass’s oratory, Southard rightly notes that “Douglass was a speaker before he was a writer” (99), and he makes the case that multiple streams of influence, from Douglass’s experience of enslavement to the AME church, to fellow abolitionists, helped shape him into arguably the most accomplished orator of his day. (Southard also makes the welcome point that our virtual obsession with the 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” address “unnecessarily condenses Douglass to one speech” [103], and that we should therefore take note of—and teach—a much broader range of his lectures and addresses.)

6Another major genre of Douglass’s writings was journalism. Benjamin Fagan’s essay takes a fresh approach to the subject by offering a succinct account of Douglass’s editorial work on the North Star, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly, the New National Era, arguing that “shifting the focus from Douglass-as-author to Douglass-as-editor reveals how Douglass mastered the messy world of periodical print production, a feat that his contemporaries saw as his most impressive achievement” (109). Ivy Wilson’s essay on the genre of fiction focuses, as it must, on The Heroic Slave, productively situating the novella in the context of “the shifting dynamics of literary production among African American writers who were trying to negotiate the line between history and fiction” (124). Finally, Autumn Womack’s essay on photography manages to make this now extensively discussed topic fresh by approaching photography not just as a medium for Douglass’s shrewd efforts at self-representation and self-promotion, but as a nexus that included galleries and photo albums and aimed more broadly at “refusing and reconstituting a racial gaze that purported to fix black people as knowable objects rather than dynamic subjects” (134). Womack’s discussion boldly widens into reflections on visuality and standpoint and leads to a splendid reading of the crucial scene in My Bondage and My Freedom in which young Douglass, passing through the dark woods with his grandmother, learns that “the point from which a thing is viewed is of some importance” (2021 43). Womack concludes that he “thus invites readers to understand how their own seemingly stable viewpoints are entirely dependent upon their subject position. If the perceptive position that commodifies black people is highly constructed, Douglass reasons, it can just as easily be reconstructed” (137).

7The section on Douglass’s activism includes excellent essays on Abolition (Kellie Carter Jackson), Temperance (Erica L. Ball), Women’s Rights (Hélène Quanquin), The Civil War (Chandra Manning), and Reconstruction and Civil Rights (Douglas R. Egerton). Taken individually, the essays are just as informative and stimulating as those discussed above, but I was disappointed that the section nowhere addresses the question of what “activism” itself is. Michael Roy rightly points out in his Introduction that “Douglass was an activist before he was a writer; he was a writer because he was an activist” (1). This means that almost every essay in the volume deals with a manifestation of Douglass’s activism and could appropriately be placed in this section. But my point here is not that some justification should have been made for grouping only these five essays under that heading; rather, it is that, given how deeply Douglass was committed to activism, some more theoretical account of that term would have been so valuable. Not so long ago, we thought we knew what “resistance” meant, but a couple of decades of useful theorizing and research (e.g., by Jeffrey Ferguson, Stephanie M. H. Camp, Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, and Kevin Quashie) have made the meaning of that term far more capacious and productively unstable. I think “activism” likewise calls for such inquiry and revision. Douglass was certainly an “activist” when he traveled the country giving anti-slavery speeches. But is there a sense in which he was an activist also when he posed for photographs of himself, when he learned how to play the violin, and when he studied German and other languages? Does any commonality subtend these different activities? Must activism consist of activity, or may it also manifest as a disposition, or even a mood or an affect—such as Douglass’s famous irony?

8The section titled “Philosophy” is one of the richest in the volume, dealing as it does with such diverse and complex topics as Politics (Kelvin C. Black), Law (Jeannine Marie DeLombard), Education (Brigitte Fielder), Religion (Maurice O. Wallace), Science and Technology (Eric Herschthal), and Environment (Tony C. Perry). Here, too, familiar topics are addressed in a way that gives non-expert readers the basic orientation they will need and more expert readers some new insights to reckon with. In “Politics,” for example, Kelvin Black treads a well-worn path when he identifies Douglass’s politics with his change of opinion on the constitutionality of slavery. But he also takes readers into new territory when he suggests that we place Douglass’s thinking on this question in the context of a broader transnational debate over the need for reform or revolution. Similarly, Jeannine DeLombard is on familiar terrain when she describes Douglass’s “critique of the Garrisonians’ decidedly un-‘lawyerlike’ approach to the foundational racism of American law and culture” (221); yet she also offers the new and intriguing argument that Douglass “warned that the ‘modern doctrine’ of replacing the archaic legal categories of ‘slave’ and ‘slaveholder’ with biopolitical terms such as ‘colored’ and ‘white’ could extend the legal logic of slavery into nominal freedom” (221).

9Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “Networks” section is the most heterogeneous of them all. After opening with an essay on the underground railroad, it offers discussions of a series of qualitatively quite different networks: Colored Conventions (Jim Casey), Family (Leigh Fought), Correspondence (Fionnghuala Sweeney), and Intertextuality (Julia Lee). The first two of these contributions deal with institutions (one informal and clandestine, the other formal and public), then we move on to a network of a very different kind (organic and inter-relational), and then to the creation of networks through individual acts of correspondence, and finally to the detection of networks through a rigorous reading practice that identifies the many “moments of intertextuality” (331) in Douglass’s speeches and writings. Yet, through these very differences we begin to see surprising connections. Both the underground railroad and the colored conventions depended on correspondence among their members, and the ties that bound the participants to each other within these networks might often have had a familial dimension (literally in some cases, and affectively in many others). Above all, the eclecticism of these essays demonstrates or perhaps helpfully reminds us of the networked nature of all historical phenomena, of their co-existence within a rhizomatic matrix of connections that we can’t possibly do justice to and risk occluding whenever we settle on one or even two or three distinct contexts through which to approach and read an author.

10The volume’s final section, titled “Afterlives,” explores several of the many ways that Douglass’s work and writings reverberate more than a century after his death. Howard Rambsy II writes incisively on what we can learn from a historical review of “Paratexts,” which include the many frontispieces and Introductions written to the many editions of Douglass’s Narrative since it first appeared in 1845. In an essay on “Teaching,” Julie Husband discusses a range of pedagogical approaches to Douglass, and in “Bicentennial” A J Aiséirithe describes and analyzes some of the many manifestations of that celebration, including events in England, France, Maryland, Manhattan, and Lynn, Massachusetts.

11Two essays in this section held particular interest for me because they recognize that Douglass was a philosopher as well as an activist and writer. Janet Neary’s “Deployments: Art” offers a remarkably stimulating account of what she calls Douglass’s “philosophy of vision” (370). Nele Sawallisch’s “Deployments: Activism” examines some “recent work by scholars, intellectuals, and activists [that] reminds us [that] Douglass’s multifaceted legacy […] can serve different disciplines of inquiry, like a well that never runs dry” (356). Sawallawisch has a more explicitly interdisciplinary reach than most other contributors to the volume, and she is the only contributor who takes notice of some of the ways Douglass has been read within the field of Black Political Thought and Black Studies—e.g., by Angela Y. Davis and Chris LeBron. For reasons I will turn to in a moment, I think the field as a whole could learn from her example.

12Not surprisingly, and precisely because of its extraordinary range, this volume winds up expressing the field’s consensus understandings today both of Douglass and of literary historical method. It thus offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on and assess both of these.

13On the upside, we find in the volume a full expression of the field’s widening interests in geographies and transatlantic circuits of literary, cultural, and material exchange. We also find (though to a lesser degree) expression of the field’s deepening investigations of the nineteenth-century Black public sphere and Black print culture. The volume also furthers the field’s turn away from a narrow fixation on Douglass and slavery to a broader investigation—so appropriate in the age of resurgent anti-Black racism and Black Lives Matter—of his grappling with race and racism. Most broadly, the volume reflects the field’s creative discovery of ever more contexts in which to situate and study Douglass and other historical actors.

14On the downside, with the exceptions noted above, the volume also expresses the field’s continuing relative indifference (compared to other fields of literary study, such as Modernism or Early Modern Studies) to pertinent work in other fields and disciplines. I mention this because I believe that attunement to Black Studies especially would help address several lacunae that continue to plague nineteenth-century US literary studies generally, and Douglass studies in particular.

15The most troubling of these is our still insufficient knowledge and understanding of the complex political and cultural fault lines that troubled the free Black community, with the result that “white” and “Black” continue to be set up as a somewhat simplistic binary, with Douglass addressing mainly in the former. (In this volume, Casey’s essay on the Colored Conventions provides some help in taking Douglass out of a primarily white context, but more might have been done along the line already marked out by Carla Peterson, Elizabeth McHenry, Martha S. Jones, Derrick R. Spires, P. Gabrielle Foreman, Sarah Lynn Patterson, among many others.) The tendency to unconsciously situate Douglass in a primarily white context manifests, for example, in the ways the word “reader” is used in this volume, i.e., often in a manner that overlooks that many of Douglass readers and listeners were Black, not white, and that Douglass was often seeking to intervene in debates within the free Black community, and not always writing to a white readership. For example, when Womack suggests that Douglass “invites readers to understand how their own seemingly stable viewpoints are entirely dependent upon their subject position,” she considers only “the [white] perceptive position that commodifies black people” (137) and overlooks that persons positioned as commodified Black people might also have taken up and used Douglass’s insight.

16In the field more broadly, the dominance of a white context manifests in the habit of thinking that Douglass’s break with Garrison was the pivotal moment of his career, and that its efficient cause was their difference of opinion about the Constitution; yet it could also be argued that the pivotal moment was Douglass’s decision to found the North Star in order to self-identify as a Black activist intellectual concerned not just with anti-slavery but with a range of other issues that engaged the free Black community, including the nature, causes, and effects of whites’ anti-Black racism.

17Likewise, more familiarity with Black Religious Studies might help us become more conscious of our field’s ingrained secularism, which sharply constrains the way we tend to handle the subject of religion. (I’m thinking here of work by, among many others, Katie G. Cannon, Reginald F. Davis, John Ernest, Wilmore S. Gayraud, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Vincent Lloyd, Anthony B. Pinn, and Wilmore S. Gayraud.) With a few noteworthy exceptions, most scholars in the field seem to be embarrassed by Douglass’s many and fervent avowals of his faith in everlasting truths and his (changing) conception of what God might be. Although there is certainly much to be learned from Douglass’s engagements with religious institutions (as Maurice Wallace’s fine essay in this volume shows), must we so often study religion as a force that impinges on historical actors from the outside, and so seldom as a feeling that that wells up from within them? Implicitly or explicitly, we tend to put scare quotes around “spiritual,” as when one of the volume’s contributors writes that “religion deeply impacted Douglass’s ‘spiritual’ sense of history and the persona he adopted when speaking” (98). Similarly, we tend to look away even from those moments in which Douglass most forthrightly expresses his spiritual sensibility. “Rightly viewed,” he declares in a passage quoted by another essay, “the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery[,] a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted” (1985 459). It seems to me that only the constraining power of a disciplinary disposition can explain why this otherwise excellent essay entirely disregards the intriguing phrases whole soul of man and things of time and things of eternity and construes the passage as concerned simply with, “the question of how to ‘view rightly?’” (369).

18Finally, although Roy’s target in the Introduction is Douglass’s “teleological vision of history” (3), the volume also offers an opportunity to reflect on the limitations imposed on us by the field’s conception of history and by the methodology we’ve derived from that conception, both of which have held sway so long (since the 1980s) that they have hardened into the field’s unquestionable common sense. Our persistent and unwavering loyalty to a single methodology is surprising in itself, but especially (and ironically) when the figure being studied has declared that “we have to do with the past only as it is of use to the present and to the future” (1982 366). Along with its thematic approach, what I have called the volume’s rhizomatic sensibility—its awareness of the potentially endless proliferation of contexts both created and inhabited by all historical phenomena—implicitly casts doubt upon the solidity of the concept of “context” itself, and thus also upon the reach of the method we have built around it. This impressive volume thus demonstrates both the continuing usefulness of contextualization as a method and provokes us to rethink that method, becoming more aware of, and perhaps breaking free of, some of the constraints it imposes.

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Nick Bromell, « Michaël Roy, ed., Frederick Douglass in Context »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18128 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18128

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Nick Bromell

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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