HM - September 2019 - Book Review
Book Review: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Reviewed by Tony Sturgeon
The word celebrity as we know it today began to be used in the mid-19th century, and most historians would not be surprised if its use was brought to prominence because of the popularity of Frederick Douglass. During his lifetime, this unlikely celebrity rose to fame through his newspaper publications, travels to Europe, beautiful oratorical addresses, and ever-popular autobiographies. With three of these published accounts of Douglass’s life, along with the numerous studies of his life and times done in the years since, one might think that there was little to add to the legacy of this remarkable American. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, however, David Blight has produced the definitive examination into the life of Frederick Douglass that is sure to delight any historian yearning to know more.
Blight takes an in-depth and chronological look at every aspect of Douglass’s life beginning with his experiences as an enslaved child, continuing with his rise as an abolitionist, into the celebratory moment of emancipation, and through the difficulties of Reconstruction. Most of the journey is presented as though the reader is a passenger alongside Douglass. Almost every scenario presented is approached through Douglass’s eyes and opinions. There are certain moments when Blight does leave Douglass for a brief aside to better provide the historical context and thoughts of other figures, but this is always done in order to better tell Douglass’s story. Blight does not allow himself to stray away from his main subject for very long. Readers will feel as though they have an inside track into Douglass’s mind as he grows and adapts over the years. It is obvious that Blight reveres Douglass, but he is able to point out the character flaws and poor choices made which keep this study academically grounded.
Teachers of history will find the book to be a trove of anecdotes and information which they can incorporate into any study of the time period. Whether looking for more information about the abolitionist movement, or the Civil War, or the struggles of all Americans during Reconstruction, there is something to be learned by everyone. Blight’s numerous pages of notes provide an opportunity for those interested to dive even deeper into many of the original sources that have been used in the creation of this work. The one drawback to the text is its size; at nearly 800 pages it is a commitment to read, and there are times when the pace slows down a bit too much. But, if a teacher doesn’t have time to read it cover to cover, using it as a reference to add to his or her studies and lessons is easily done. Regardless of how or why a person enters into Prophet of Freedom, they will emerge a better person for having taken this journey.