Sunday, June 10, 2018

Frederick Douglass's transformation from MLK-like to Malcolm-like abolitionist

For the longest, I, along with many others, thought and talked about the transformation of Frederick Douglass from boy to slave to (free) man. There's that often quoted line from the Narrative where Douglass goes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Ok. But Robert Levine's The Lives of Frederick Douglass has me giving more thought to Douglass's transformation from one kind of abolitionist to another kind of abolitionist, especially between the years 1841 and 1853.

It's fascinating, following along as Levine describes how Douglass moved from an abolitionist who embraced nonviolence (moral suasion) to one who embraced physical resistance to slavery. A somewhat analogous example for modern folks would be akin to observing an MLK figure become like Malcolm. Among other factors, Douglass was deeply moved by the story of Madison Washington, a former slave who led a mutiny aboard the ship, Creole, which was transporting 134 additional slaves. Telling and retelling the story of Washington to audiences during his lectures was integral to Douglass's transformation.

I've heard people discuss the differences between abolitionists and antislavery advocates. Levine doesn't really do that. Instead, he's constantly showing that the terms "abolition" and "antislavery" were used interchangeably. After all, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who initially employed and supported Douglass, was the co-founder of the American  Anti-Slavery Society.

Prior to Douglass's affiliation with the groups, abolitionist/antislavery advocates were breaking off, non-amicably into various factions. The Garrison-led group viewed the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document. They believed in moral suasion, and they were radical in the sense that they did not believe in affecting change through formal political, governmental processes. A more conservative group disagreed with those approaches and beliefs and broke off from Garrisonians to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. And yet another group, the Liberty Party, separated from Garrison's group, viewed the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, and supported the right of slaves to enact violence against their captors.

Douglass worked with and was financially supported by each of those antislavery organizations at different moments, and additional ones during his time in England and Ireland from 1845 - 1847. Douglass's intellectual development, various travels, and many activities led to his transformation from abolitionist to political abolitionist, but economic factors were important as well. Financial support from British supporters as well as from the Liberty Party leader Gerrit Smith made it possible for Douglass to found his own newspaper and break away from Garrison. 

Frederick Douglass's (Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society) Narrative
A Notebook on Frederick Douglass

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