Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase. 

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