Frederick Douglass: Freedom’s Force, by Melva Lawson Ware
Of the three books I read about Douglass’ life, this was the one that was the most complete and it is certainly an interesting and noteworthy one that is easy to appreciate. Among the most obvious aspects of this book to appreciate is that it covers a generally pretty complete account of the life of its subjects, and it includes areas most books do not (including his late-in-life second marriage to a white woman), which are both qualities that are definitely worthy of respect. The strong basis of this book with chronology gives an account that can provide genuine historical context to the reader, even if it does not contain material that is necessarily going to be flattering to Douglass’ family, including his use of nepotism to help his sons out given their difficulties in finding work without his support. This book is intended for middle readers who are willing to learn some unfamiliar vocabulary about life in the 19th century and it is certainly a book that wishes to explain as much as possible about the complexities of Douglass’ life as a slave as well as an anti-slavery speaker and political activist.
This book is more than 100 pages and is divided into ten chapters. The book begins with some glimpses into Douglass personal and family life (1), after which the author discusses the harsh world that Douglass found as an orphaned young man in slavery (2). The author discusses the pathway that he found to attempt freedom (3) as well as the fortune that he found in avoiding a cruel fate in recapture (4). The author discusses his quitting of the old life of slavery (5), and his new home, life, name, and friends in the Nroth and England as an antislavery leader (6). One chapter is devoted to talking about how Douglass spread the word for the abolitionist cause in the 1840’s (7) and then dealt with the explosive changes that took place between the Mexican War and the end of the Civil War (8), a period in which Douglass was a figure of considerable fame. After that, the book talks about the legacy of Lincoln in the civil rights that Douglass sought for blacks and women (9), and the period of his life marked by the burning of his house, the death of his first wife, and his marriage to a white woman in his dotage (10).
Not all of what is mentioned here is something that is going to look positive to readers. In particular, the reader is invited to ponder the relationship between Douglass and his first wife and their periods of separation and the grief that was felt by his wife after the death of one of their children. Douglass’ relationship with his family is certainly ambiguous as well. Who was his white father and what was the relationship between that father and his enslaved mother, who appears to have been descended from West African Muslims named Belali? Why did Douglass not get to know about the death of his mother even though he was living in the same (albeit large) plantation with other relatives? How did those relatives take care of him? Did Douglass’ distant relationship with his birth family influence his own behavior as a family man? These and other questions are sparked by the book, including an apparent controversy over who paid for Douglass’ freedom and how much it cost, given those amounts and who paid for it are in dispute. These sort of historical disputes are interesting and they reveal the extent to which our view of historical subjects depends on their behavior in specific situations.