The book that shook a nation's conscience

July 21, 2002|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

A BEST-SELLER in the years leading to the Civil War, out of print for a century until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, the best of the escape-from-slavery tales that fueled the black freedom movement, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave will soon top the must-read list in Baltimore.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Pratt Library Director Carla D. Hayden have chosen the Douglass autobiography as "Baltimore's Book" in a citywide reading spree that will focus on the greatest African-American of the 19th century.

From early August to late September, Baltimore schoolchildren and thinking adults will be enlisted in this novel enterprise. They will read this short, scorching book. Think about it, talk about it, join discussion groups, visit libraries, buy copies for only $1 at Artscape, celebrate at the Baltimore Book Festival and stroll the byways of Fells Point, where Douglass lived and worked and learned to read and write. For him, literacy led to liberation.

Starting with Seattle, other cities have selected other books for municipal "read-a-thons." Nationally, it may be the biggest experiment in mass intellectual uplift since Oprah turned into a publishing bonanza. But Baltimore is the first to select the Douglass work -- and for good reason.

Born in 1818 on the Eastern Shore near St. Michaels, Douglass might well have been condemned to a life as a field hand or as a servant in the big plantation house of a former Maryland governor and senator. Instead, from 1845 to 1895, he grew to be the greatest black leader of his era, an orator, editor, writer, polemicist, federal office-holder and champion of his race during the joys of emancipation and the harsh setbacks of Jim Crow.

How all this happened is a tale told in three autobiographies, published in 1845, 1855 and 1892. The latter two are longer and broader as they recount his extraordinary career. But the gem of the trilogy -- the one Baltimoreans will be reading -- is the first.

A marvelous stylist, a storyteller who relishes tension and timing, Douglass describes his early life as a black boy awakening to servitude. He never knew his father, though he suspected it was a white man, and his mother was torn from him at an early age. His masters, perhaps taking note of his precocity, sent him across the bay to relatives in Baltimore.

There he encountered flashes of white kindness and concern, apprenticed as a caulker and carpenter in Fells Point shipyards and picked up his first whiffs of the abolition movement. For Douglass, however, it was not a seamless stroll to freedom. His masters sent him back twice to the Eastern Shore, where he countered harsh overseers, successfully fought with a "slave-breaker," plotted a foiled escape and had reason to fear being sold to the Deep South.

Instead, it was back to Baltimore, where he gradually accumulated the funds that enabled him to get away from slave state Maryland in 1838. In Massachusetts, his fiery speaking skills attracted the attention of abolitionist leaders William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both of whom wrote prefaces to the Narrative that made Frederick Douglass a household name in 19th century America.

His 125-page, 50-cent book was quickly outselling the works of Emerson, Melville and Thoreau: 5,000 copies in a few months, 11,000 in three years, 30,000 by 1850, with multiple editions in Britain and translations in French, German and Dutch. Thousands of readers became rabid abolitionists as North-South tensions grew.

When war finally came, Douglass was part of the first group of black leaders ever invited to the White House.

In subsequent encounters with Abraham Lincoln, he rebuffed the president's pipedream of sending black Americans to another land, lobbied him to enlist black soldiers in the Grand Army of the Republic and pushed not only for the Emancipation Proclamation but for the civil and political rights later embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Today, Douglass remains an icon for most African-Americans, holding a pantheon position perhaps equaled only by W.E.B. DuBois and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is a hero to conservatives and radicals, integrationists and separatists. A native of Maryland, a sojourner in Baltimore, he is soon to reign for a spell as this city's No. 1 author.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, for many years an editorial page editor of The Sun, is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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