Journey To Freedom: Frederick Douglass, by John Passaro
This book gives what I would consider to be a brief and very standard review of Frederick Douglass’ life that is targeted mainly at younger readers. Although such books are typically shallow and obviously very oversimplified it is still worthwhile to know what it is that a given author or historical or educational establishment wants children to know about a particular person. Douglass was a famous person in the 19th century and remains so today and is famous in such a way that he is used to bolster support for various historical causes even today. For example, those who have an abolitionist view of history seek to credit him as a way of tying themselves to the abolitionists of the subject’s time, people who were deeply unpopular at the time for reasons that are well worth knowing (and racism is not the only reason, it should be remembered). And Douglass’ concern with the civil rights of not only black men but also women is also of great interest for contemporary writers because it allows them to paint Frederick Douglass as having been on the correct side of history, and thus allows people to virtue signal by praising him for being ahead of his time.
This book’s focuses make it clear the nature of the virtue signalling that the author wishes to make in less than 40 pages. First, the author talks about the horrific problems of slavery, likely seeking to paint the slavery, even in border south Maryland, as being horrific, as a way of countering Lost Cause myths about the relative gentleness of slavery in the area. The author then discusses the escape of Douglass from slavery, showing the workings of the Underground Railroad and Douglass’ own passion for liberty. After that there is a discussion of Douglass’ career as an abolitionist speaker and writer, publishing his own paper and even having to escape because of his ties to John Brown. After that the author explores Douglass’ fame during the Civil War, which included quite a few face-to-face conversations with Lincoln. After that the author discusses the fight for civil rights, both for blacks and for women, that took place in the period between the end of the Civil War and Douglass’ death, for which he has gained enduring fame. After that there is a timeline, glossary, and index to provide further information to readers.
Is this virtue signalling wrong? In reading a book like this one, do we feel proud that we are on the right side of history and seek to view those who were opposed to Douglass as being subhuman and unworthy of our respect and regard? Or do we see Douglass as having been a dignified and worthwhile person whose struggle against prejudice can show us how such behavior can serve to convince others of a more widespread basis for respect and dignity than may be common in our place and time. Beyond the political agendas for which Douglass crusaded, Douglass’ example as a man is something that can remind us that humanity is not as simple as we may think. Douglass utilized and took advantage of the learning that he had, recognized the power of knowledge, and acquired the know-how it took to appeal to audiences who respected him because he was able to speak to them in their own language in such a way that he communicated that he was himself worthy of respect as much as anyone else. A less articulate person would have been less well regarded, even by the idealists of his time and our own. What lessons we learn from a life like Douglass’ tell us a lot about ourselves.