Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass

Article excerpt

A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass. Edited by Neil Roberts. Political Companions to Great American Authors. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. Pp. [xii], 476. $80.00, ISBN 978-0-8131-7562-1.)

In the last few weeks of his life, Frederick Douglass was asked for advice by a young African American activist. The seventy-seven-year-old crusader, who had lived through slavery, war, and the failures of Reconstruction; had helped shape the nineteenth century; and would die just before W. E. B. Du Bois earned his Ph.D. and Booker T. Washington gave his Atlanta Compromise speech, replied, "'Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!'" (p. 369). That political life is the focus of this book, which brings together new and previously published essays by fifteen scholars from gender studies, philosophy, English, political science, history, literature, and theology. Part of the University Press of Kentucky series Political Companions to Great American Authors, the book explores Douglass's impact as a political thinker through his speeches and writings.

The first part focuses on slavery and freedom and begins with Paul Gilroy's analysis of Douglass on the conflict between slavery and modernity. Bernard R. Boxill examines autobiographical accounts of Douglass's famous fight with Covey the slave-breaker to ask if people have "an absolute duty to defend ourselves against physical abuse in Covey-like circumstances" (p. 74). Margaret Kohn studies the theoretical connections between Hegel's masterslave dialectic and Douglass's description of his slave resistance. Angela Y. Davis's 1969 "Lectures on Liberation," reprinted in this volume, uses Douglass's struggle with Covey to argue that "[t]he master is always on the verge of becoming the slave, and the slave possesses the real, concrete power to make him always on the verge of becoming the master" (p. 130). Robert Gooding-Williams places the Du Bois-Washington conflict in conversation with Douglass's 1855 autobiography, which offers "often forgotten or unheeded conceptual possibilities for theorizing... the prospects for black politics in the postsegregation era" (p. 140).

The second part focuses on Douglass's thoughts on human nature. Jack Turner's exploration of two speeches given after the 1883 Civil Rights Cases draws parallels to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, arguing that Douglass, rather than taking the formalist approach that has caused him to be appropriated by present-day conservatives, looked at how power asymmetries oppressed African Americans. Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro challenges conceptions of Douglass and other black men as rugged individualists, using their relationships to explore the "interpersonal space of choice, where the ethic of restorative care is freely exercised... as a type of expanded black masculinity" (p. 241). Nicholas Buccola analyzes Douglass's "nuanced theory" of human nature that "appreciates the competing tendencies within human beings" and led him to positions such as supporting universal suffrage (p. 253).

Part 3 focuses on the law. Peter C. Myers explores Douglass's belief that the universe acts in accordance with an exorable, if slow-moving, moral law; this belief led him, for instance, to insist that African Americans fight for equality in the South rather than migrate to the West. …

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