Frederick Douglass and the “Warm Facts” of History

Entry begun at Hampton Inn, near the Indianapolis airport, Friday, October 10, 8:15 am

Just last week I learned about a conference on Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis).  This urban campus is the editorial home of the Frederick Douglass Papers and it is a two-hour drive from my home in northern Kentucky.  I had spent much of last week revising the 1852 chapter of the book I am writing on Frederick Douglass in Cincinnati in the 1850s, and had been thinking hard about how The Heroic Slave, which Douglass wrote toward the end of 1852, related to events earlier in that year.  The two keynoters at the conference, Bob Levine of the University of Maryland and John Stauffer of Harvard University, were colleagues I had worked with in planning the international conference on Douglass and Melville we held in New Bedford in 2005, and I greatly admire the work each has done since, which has richly informed the book I am writing now.

Douglass’s signature at the end of The Heroic Slave in Autographs for Freedom, 1853

Douglass’s signature at the end of The Heroic Slave in Autographs for Freedom, 1853

The occasion of this conference is a scholarly edition of The Heroic Slave that Levine and Stauffer are co-editing with John McKivigan, editor-in-chief of the Frederick Douglass Papers.  All of the speakers at this two-day conference are addressing The Heroic Slave, Douglass’s only work of fiction, which until recent decades had been completely ignored.  Yesterday was a very stimulating day, and I would like to write about it now, but I have just eaten breakfast and I have to find a gas station before driving to the site of the conference today, which is not on the downtown campus.  I hope my driving is better than in was in the pitch dark last night, when I made several wrong turns onto the wrong forks of quickly merging interstates in search of my hotel and was only able to find it with the help of three different strangers at least seven miles apart from each other.

Entry continued at Bob Evans restaurant off I-74, Harrison, Ohio, October 10, 4:30 pm

Today the travel went better.  I filled the gas tank and took a network of roads across northern Indianapolis to 3333 N. Illinois Street—which, however, did not look like the site of an academic conference.  The entrance I was looking for was in fact not the one numbered 3333 but farther back in an adjacent industrial-looking lot to the north.  The Jewel Center is a small, intimate event center run by Cynthia Bates, who beautifully hosted the head table of scholars and a room of more than a hundred high school students, among whom I sat, most of them from Cathedral High School.  How appropriate that the second day of the conference on The Heroic Slave was out in the community rather than in an academic setting.   Douglass would I am sure have appreciated the location, the audience, and the purpose of this meeting hosted by a black female entrepreneur.  And could he have imagined, when he died in 1895, one hundred and twenty one years ago, that his complete written works would be in the process of being published by Yale University Press through the editorial work of IUPUI in Indianapolis, about twenty miles from the town of Pendleton, Indiana, where had had been attacked on the lecture podium in 1843, so viciously that bones in one hand remained fractured for the rest of his life?

When I arrived around 9:30 this morning “Jack” McKivigan was in the process of giving this room full of high school students an overview of Douglass’s life followed by an account of the process by which the documents within the Frederick Douglass Papers project were being discovered, selected, transcribed, edited, and published.  These students, equally split in gender and notably diverse in race, were impressively attentive.  Jack’s opening presentation was followed by two hour-long panels.  One featured three historians we had heard the day before, this time discussing the subject of slave revolts.  The other featured three literary scholars we had heard the day before, this time discussing the place of The Heroic Slave in the context of pre-Civil War American literature.

John McKivigan addressing high school students at The Jewel Center, October 10, 2014

Jack McKivigan addressing high school students at The Jewel Center, October 10, 2014

After each group of speakers, there was plenty of time for questions from the audience, and several of these were most challenging–especially as they addressed the question of how the subject of slave revolts, for so long suppressed in the study and teaching of American history, related to the issue of violence within the black community today.  These questions from students and from black community members who were present were different in kind and spirit from those that academics usually receive, and McKivingan and the panelists responded to them for the most part extremely well.

The keynote address by V. P. Franklin followed a stirring invocation to social action by Apostle David A. Scott, Sr., Visionary Founder of the African American Restoration Movement in Indianapolis.  Franklin, currently at the University of California—Riverside, is editor of the Journal of African American History.  His address, like many by Douglass himself, was both autobiographical and community-oriented.  Franklin presented an overview of his own life as a black academic, beginning with his having led student protests over the lack of racial diversity in the student body at Pennsylvania State University in the 1960s.  Both within academia and in encounters with the outside world (including one with the Governor of the state of Arizona), Franklin showed how many of the issues that Douglass battled in the era of slavery are still with us today in ways students can still devote themselves to fighting in their own lives.  It was a deeply engaging speech, not only for the students in the audience, but for the academics as well as community members who were present.

I am so glad I came to this conference.  In addition to Bob Levine, John Stauffer, and Jack McKivigan, I met many others I had known before or am happy to know now.  Another of yesterday’s speakers was Ivy Wilson, with whom I had co-edited the June 2008 special issue of the journal Leviathan devoted to Douglass and Melville .  As soon as I arrived at the conference, Bob Levine had introduced me to Celeste-Marie Bernier, a scholar from England currently in Memphis who has written about Douglass’s life and legacy in ways deeply compatible with my own research.  The first speaker yesterday was historian Stanley Harrold, whose biography of Gemaliel Bailey I had been studying this week.  I was also happy to meet Jane Schultz, a nineteenth-century literature scholar at IUPUI who was very impressed with the catalog of Moby-Dick art that Emma Rose and I are putting together for our exhibition in Covington in April.  Emma Rose had gotten our two proofs in the mail after our meeting on Wednesday afternoon, and she had brought one over to my home that evening so I could bring it with me Indianapolis yesterday morning.  A number of people were impressed with the Moby catalog, and Jane is hoping to come with one of her colleagues to the Emily Dickinson exhibition and Marathon Reading in February.

During a break in the Saturday morning session (from left): historian Diane Barnes; literary scholars  Celeste-Marie Bernier, Jane Schultz, and Bob Levine; and Apostle David A. Scott, Sr.

During a break on Saturday morning (from left): historian Diane Barnes; literary scholars Celeste-Marie Bernier, Jane Schultz, and Bob Levine; and Apostle David A. Scott, Sr.

To have all this sustained talk about The Heroic Slave, either in academia or out in the community, would have been unheard of thirty years ago.  I have long been grateful to the Frederick Douglass Papers project for their editorial work; I am now equally grateful for the opportunity to be with historians and literary scholars who have been investigating Douglass and his work at the same time that I am so deeply involved in my own Douglass project.  I love this project, but life at the writing desk does get lonely at times.  I have many thoughts and feelings from these two days that will stay with me for some time to come.

One of my favorite moments involving Douglass himself in 1852 came soon after the Anti-Slavery Conference in Cincinnati in late April in which he had addressed the audience five times in three days and written most of the resolutions that were discussed and passed.  In the “Jaunt to Cincinnati” he published two weeks later in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, he apologized to his readers for not having been able to “provide letters fresh from the stirring scene” as it was actually happening.  Douglass explains that “I make myself entirely too much of the proceedings of an anti-slavery meeting, and have feelings too deeply excited, to attend to the cold drudgery of penmanship.  He who can coolly sit down in such meetings, sharpen his quill, unscrew his ink, and unfold his paper-case, to write out the proceedings of such an occasion, has a power of refrigeration which I do not possess.  I can write resolutions, addresses, or what not, for the use of a Convention; but to write down the warm facts of its history, when they come glowing from brave hearts all around me, I can’t do it.”

In spite of this disclaimer, Frederick Douglass did give us the “warm facts” of history with perhaps more immediacy than any other public figure of his age.  He did this in speeches day after day, in his newspaper week after week, and in the letters, essays, autobiographies, and fiction that the Frederick Douglass Papers in Indianapolis continue to bring out in volume after volume.  The life of Frederick Douglass in the 1850s was the closest thing we had, then, to a living blog.

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