When thinking of Black leaders who shaped American history, Frederick Douglass is one of the first who comes to mind. His striking, charismatic portraiture is matched by his compelling intellect which springs forth in every page he wrote. I remember my first time reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his first book, and hanging onto each and every word as he painted a portrait of his life. It was truly awe-inspiring. Douglass was a man whose presence could be felt with such fervor that none could deny his humanity, the very rights of which were withheld from millions of his contemporaries.
Becoming Frederick Douglass is a documentary made by PBS which can be viewed for free online. The film covers Douglass’ life from birth to the height of his career, telling the story of how he came to understand the empowerment of education, escaped to the North, and gave speeches and wrote books throughout the rest of his life denouncing the evils of slavery. Those who have read his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, will be familiar with many of the story beats that are covered in the documentary, but there are also entire sections that complement and strengthen the narrative as well as go far beyond the point at which the first book ends. The film certainly piqued my interest to read Douglass’ two other autobiographies in the future: My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
One of the most enduring themes of the film is the ways in which important figures and communities within Douglass’ life helped him become the abolitionist icon we remember today. So often we see historical figures as lone pillars of excellence, standing above the masses by virtue of their own character. In truth, no one exists in a vacuum. Douglass’ resolve and unbreakable will were strengthened by the unconditional love of those closest to him. In his early years, this was his grandmother. In adulthood, it was the woman who helped him escape to freedom and would later become his wife, Anna Murray. The free Black communities in Baltimore and Massachusetts as well as the church bolstered Douglass’ dreams of freedom and his later ambitions and also gave him a firm foundation to build upon.
The duality of Douglass as both individual and icon and the tension that came from this dynamic is deeply fascinating. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written to prove to the general populace that the only difference between free and enslaved Blacks was education, that any Black man could stand as an equal to whites in refinement and moral character just as Douglass did. After the success of the book, Douglass and his family traveled overseas to avoid Douglass’ capture and re-enslavement. During these years, some of Douglass’ wealthy abolitionist friends offered to buy Douglass’ freedom by paying off his former master. Other abolitionists protested, citing the importance of Douglass as a symbol of freedom and arguing that paying for him would give legitimacy to the corrupt institution of slavery. However, in the end it was Douglass’ decision. He took the money and returned to America a free man.
Frederick Douglass was well-aware of his enduring importance as a symbol of freedom. Throughout his life he became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, with dozens of portraits being taken of him over the years. In every one his presence is the same. He poses for the camera, impeccably dressed and with a profound gravitas within his bearing. Douglass knew how important it was for Black people to see his image, the portrait of a Black man at the apex of power, one who could meet with the president himself, who helped shape the future of the nation and contributed to the eventual emancipation of all slaves. Douglass was a symbol of hope and a pinnacle of Black excellence before the term was even coined.
If you are looking for a helpful primer on the life of Frederick Douglass or a way to further educate yourself during Black History Month, Becoming Frederick Douglass is an excellent place to start. It is a quick, easy watch – less than an hour long – and has plenty to teach both about Douglass himself and America during the decades preceding the Civil War. If you are interested in learning more about Douglass through his writing, his works are easily accessible and affordable such as his first, second and third autobiographies. Happy learning!