July 10, 2020

Required July 4 Reading: “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”

Pulitzer Prize winning author David W. Blight zooming in for July 5 NWS event
By Ross Boissoneau | June 27, 2020

Pulitzer Prize-winner David W. Blight will be the featured guest at the National Writers Series’ online event 7pm July 5, where he will discuss his book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” with guest host Rochelle Riley.

Blight is Sterling Professor of History at Yale and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. As such, he is involved with numerous outreach programs regarding the history of slavery and its abolition. That includes organizes conferences, working groups, lectures, the administering of the annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

The native of Flint has also written many books, including Douglass’s biography, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Frederick W. Douglass remains one of the towering figures in American history. And at this moment in history, probing the mind and motivations of this one-time slave who became a popular orator, an abolitionist, and one of the major literary figures of his time seems especially timely.

Make no mistake: Prophet of Freedom does not cast Douglass simply as a hero. In a 2018 review of the book, in fact, the Boston Globe called it “Complex Look at Frederick Douglass with a Lesson for Trump Era.” The New York Times said it “treats Frederick Douglass as Man, Not Myth.”

And as Blight himself wrote in the book’s introduction, “The sheer complexity of his thought and life makes him an icon held in some degree of commonality. He was brilliant, courageous, and … his literary genius ranks with that of many of America’s greatest writers of his century. But he was also vain, arrogant at times, and hypersensitive to slights. Douglass was thoroughly and beautifully human.”

Blight has discussed Douglass and his book in numerous interviews over the years. Those discussions have only grown in importance, especially now with protests against racial discrimination across the country dominating news coverage online, in print and on the airwaves.

Blight compared this era with that following the Civil War in an interview he did with the Guardian. “All revolutions have counter-revolutions, and that’s precisely what happened after the Civil War. It’s precisely what is happening with the American conservative movement all the way back to Goldwater but especially since Reaganism, then with Gingrich’s Contract with America, and now with this phenomenon of Trumpism.” 

His biography of Douglass drew from several sources, including the words of Douglass himself, who wrote three biographies during his lifetime. Blight was also able to access a collection of material about Douglass through Walter O. Evans, whom he met while on a lecture tour regarding his editing Douglass’s first biography. The collection of Douglass family scrapbooks, family letters, and other documents, photographs, speeches, and newspaper clippings from the final third of Douglass’ life gave him information and insights other students of Douglass did not have. 

The resulting book has drawn praise from all quarters. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, it won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. The book has also been optioned by Higher Ground Productions and Netflix for a projected feature film.

Blight is a Michigan native who grew up in Flint before attending Michigan State University, earning his Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught high school in Flint for several years. He also taught at Harvard University and at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. 

Hosting the event will be Rochelle Riley. The longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press is now director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit. She is author of “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery” and co-author of the upcoming “That They Lived,” a collection of essays and photographs about famous African Americans that all children should know.

Among Riley’s awards are the Will Rogers Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for community service, the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the 2020 Daily Tar Heel Distinguished Alumnus award at the University of North Carolina, and the 2017 Ida B. Wells Award from the National Association of Black Journalists for her efforts to make newsrooms and news coverage more accurately reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Riley is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.

Attending the online NWS event with David Blight and Rochelle Riley is free, but attendees are asked to register in advance at www.nationalwritersseries.org.

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