Thursday 29 April 2010

"A People`s Leader" - W E B Du Bois and Philip Foner on Frederick Douglass

`A People`s Leader` was the headline given by Masses and Mainstream magazine (May 1950) to a review by W E B Du Bois of the first two volumes of Philip S Foner`s The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, which had been published by New York publishing company International.

Du Bois opened his review by saying that Foner`s book "puts all America under deep obligation" and was "in happy contrast to the neglect of Douglass by American historians".

He commented "It has been difficult for America to see Frederick Douglass in his correct perspective : he was a Negro and therefore in a special category ; he was certainly an unusual Negro, but how was one to compare him with white folk ? There were no accepted standards of comparison."

He quotes an (unnamed) editor`s account of hearing Douglass speak in 1841;

"This is an extraordinary man. He was cut out for a hero...As a speaker he has few equals. It is not declamation - but oratory, power of debate. He has wit, argument, sarcasm, pathos...His voice is highly melodious and rich, and his enunciation quite elegant, and yet he has been but two or three years out of the house of bondage."

Du Bois indicates that this opinion was shared by many, in many parts of the word, but feels that in itself it tells us little ;   "But oratory is in a sense superficial ; what was the man beneath ? Foner traces his intellectual growth, with perhaps not enough  emphasis on the continuous study that gave Douglass more than a college training within seven years after learning to read."

Du Bois quotes Douglass` shocked reaction to the poverty and misery he saw in Ireland ; "The scenes I witnessed were such as to make me `blush, and hang my head to think myself a man`. I speak truly when I say I dreaded to go out of the house. The streets were almost literally alive with beggars."

Du Bois takes up the story. "Soon he was developing into a man who could see the evils of the world and not simply the plight of his own people", and quotes with approval his comment "I am not only an American slave, but a man, and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood."

"Particularly was his growth helped by meeting men and being treated as an equal" Du Bois remarks, "He talked and ate with some of the great figures of his day and returned to the United States, not only a Negro, but a world citizen."

Without wanting to play the `armchair psychoanalyst`, it is clear that Du Bois is becoming sidetracked here from reviewing the book and it seems likely that Du Bois was identifying very strongly with Douglass.While a spirit of academic detachment can be a good thing, his close identification with his subject gives us something of an insight into WEBD`s own character and thinking, as well as into the character of Douglass.

Returning to the matter in hand, he comments that in Foner`s book "one can follow details of  (Douglass`s) life and compare them with what he was thinking and saying...Those of us who have always thought of Douglass principally as a speaker will be amazed at the virility and clarity of his writing". In support of this he quotes Foner`s contention that Douglass` "editorials, speeches and letters...are among the most penetrating and eloquent of any American."

"He grew as he worked and he wrote," says Du Bois, "from the lecture platform he went into the editor`s chair ; he assumed more and more the leadership of free Negroes, a difficult and intelligent group." Is it too much to think he was having a little wry joke with us, as Douglass`s story begins to sound more than a little like his own, and he reflected on the difficulties he himself had experienced ?

"He was active in the temperance movement", Du Bois continues, "he announced himself a Chartist and endorsed the land reform movement...he opposed capital punishment and was a pioneer for women`s rights."

He touches on Douglass` falling out with his former ally Garrison, apparently because Douglass had indicated he would approve if slaves used violence to free themselves (it`s worth reminding ourselves here that slaveowners were not slow to use violence to keep their slaves, and that the slave trade was inherently violent from start to finish), but points out that Harriet Beecher Stowe had been quick to write to Garrison defending Douglass` new views as "a genuine growth of his own convictions."

Douglass, we learn, "moved into politics ; into both the Liberty and Free Soil parties and finally, with some reluctance, voted with the Republicans." He regarded his association with John Brown to be "among the highest privileges of my life."

Here the first two volumes of Foner`s work end, and here Du Bois` review ends also. "These first two volumes are clear, exhaustive and convincing" he concludes. "The figure of a great man rises from them."

I hope this proves helpful to those who might not otherwise see the review (though you should be able to pick up the appropriate back issue of M and M quite cheaply on or if you want your own copy).

 I also  hope the late Dr Du Bois would forgive me my poor punctuation and rather brutal pruning of his review in an effort to  keep this article reasonably concise !

Lastly, if you were interested in this article, you may also be interesed in some of my other efforts ;

Civil Rights Showdown Revisited  - 17 April 2010
Blasts From the Past ; Angus Cameron on McCarthyism -  11 April 2010
Fighting Slavery and Climate Change in Yorksire  - 2 April 2010
Civil Rights Showdown - 13 March 2010

all to be found at