By Elizabeth Cali
In his book Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson refers to Ta-Nehisi Coates as a modern day tummler, in reference to the Yiddish term. A tummler, one who engages a crowd at a party, one who is responsible for getting a large number of people to interact, both catalyzes and builds bridges, according to Thompson’s research (79). I’ve increasingly been curious about the tummlers of 19th-century African American public thought and intellectual communication. Of course, Frederick Douglass must be in the mix.
In 1847, Douglass publicly disengaged from Garrisonian abolitionism by starting his own independent black print periodical, The North Star. Douglass would later re-title his publication Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, when merging with another anti-slavery entity. In each periodical, Douglass published various statements inviting readers to the pages of the periodical, encouraging African American thinkers and writers to engage.
How does positioning Douglass as a tummler fine tune our focus on the intentions and the methodologies of both The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper? If we see Douglass as a tummler, how might that decenter concepts of Douglass the icon, and enable us to better understand the community he beckoned to his pages?
• #FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies
Elizabeth Cali is a literature professor at SIUE.