Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 657
Bontemps’ portrait of Douglass is that of a heroic figure who occupies a place in the folklore of the nineteenth century United States. Bontemps depicts Douglass as a champion of freedom, and there are many examples presented in this biography that support this perspective.
When young Fred Bailey (Douglass’ slave name) overheard his master forbidding his wife to teach the young slave the alphabet, he understood the importance of knowing how to read and write. “I now understood the white man’s power to enslave the black man,” wrote Douglass. “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom, and I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” This is but one example of the risks that Douglass was to take in his life’s quest for freedom.
At the age of twenty, Douglass risked his life and escaped from slavery, making his way to the North. When he reached New York, Douglass was taken in and helped in his new life of freedom by abolitionists in New York and later in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Three years after his daring escape, Douglass joined the abolitionist movement. For years, he devoted his life to the movement as he traveled and lectured extensively for the cause. Although formally uneducated, his “diploma written on his back,” Douglass proved to be a dramatic, entertaining, and commanding speaker. The vivid examples of the horrors of slavery with which he roused his audiences fill the biography with an interesting and firsthand account of this period in American history from the perspective of a slave.
After several years as a successful speaker, Douglass decided to write his story. In 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an autobiography, appeared. With the publication of the book, Douglass would experience his first difference in thinking with his abolitionist sponsors. To white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, an escaped slave was effective for their cause precisely because of his ability to relate firsthand his experiences as a former slave. In order to parade their prized speaker and maintain an air of authenticity, however, they thought it necessary that he appear to be the man audiences would expect. The well-written book, they reasoned, might invalidate Douglass’ claims to be a recently escaped and uneducated slave. They worried that audiences would not believe that the writer would—were he truly an escaped slave—so foolishly reveal the particulars of his escape. Moreover, they were concerned that Douglass was risking his tenuous freedom by all but inviting his master to kidnap him back into slavery, as provided by the Fugitive Slave Laws.
Shortly after his book was released, Douglass, sponsored by the American abolitionists, traveled to Europe to speak in England, Ireland, and Scotland. While abroad, he was to commit another act of independence that would further anger his American abolitionist supporters. In England, Douglass allowed Anna Richardson, a British abolitionist, and her sister-in-law Ellen to raise money in order to purchase his freedom. His angry abolitionist friends charged that Douglass could not speak out against slavery effectively if he himself engaged in the traffic of human beings. In a brief two paragraphs, Bontemps presents Douglass’ defense of himself by quoting from a letter that he wrote to the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in which he explains why his reasoning departed from abolitionist premises.
While Free at Last never loses the sense of excitement and drama that characterizes such moments in Douglass’ life, Bontemps unfortunately does not fully explore the contradictions and tensions that Douglass found as a former slave in the largely white abolitionist movement. From the time of his escape, however, Douglass enjoyed a long tenure of advocating racial equality, and Bontemps presents Douglass as a highly articulate spokesperson whose own struggle for personal freedom evolved into a larger fight for freedom on behalf of all people.
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