From Douglass to Davis


When I was a child, I heard stories about the so-called “activist” Angela Davis. We’d whisper her name in the schoolyard – as if betraying our parents, those very ones who were themselves fooled into thinking that Ms. Davis was truly an “enemy of the state.”

We couldn’t speak of her in our social studies class. And if our afros were too large, we’d have to get them cut – too much like that “troublemaker,” we were told.

So when I received an assignment to review a Frederick Douglass book written by “troublemaker Davis,” those feelings came back to me. I wondered (1) What could Ms. Davis possibly say about Frederick Douglass that hasn’t already been said? and (2) Why should she be the one to say them? Is she even qualified to write a Frederick Douglass book?

I found my answers—and a lot more.

For certain, there are many books that cover the life of Frederick Douglass but this Frederick Douglass book reveals that there was far more to Mr. Douglass than we were taught in school (seriously, how much Black history is ever REALLY taught in public schools, or any other for that matter?) and that even more than a century later, his life is a teaching tool for all of us: Black, White, young, old, rich man, poor man – and that we are all inextricably intertwined – whether you want to believe that or not.

The Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Angela Davis

             In this Frederick Douglass book, editor Greg Ruggiero opens with a correlation between the life and times of Black slaves vs. the illustrious campaign of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. He raises the issue of race in America, not from a historical standpoint, but from today—now—with the reminding of the infamous Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the fiasco that almost derailed his friend Obama.

It was during this time that the concept of a Frederick Douglass book began. While reading transcripts by Angela Davis, who also wrote two powerful lectures about Frederick Douglass, Ruggiero describes himself as “riveted” by the thought of introducing these two persons of like-mind to a new generation of young readers, and as he so puts it: “What better political moment could there be to pub­lish these texts and introduce Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass together—two of the most important abolitionist intellectuals in U.S. history?” Hence, the Frederick Douglass book was put into motion.

Ruggiero revisits the 1960s when a paranoid American government arrested a young, multi-lingual scholar, magna cum laude graduate from Brandeis University. Her name: Angela Davis.

To the federal government Davis was a political “trifecta.” This triple threat was young and hip; highly intelligent; and wore her African heritage proudly – as is evident by her mile-high ‘fro.

With President Nixon in the oval office and Ronald Reagan as the Governor of California, Ms. Davis was seen as ‘fresh meat,’ having accepted a two-year teaching post in the philosophy department at the University of California in Los Angeles – especially once word spread that she was a member of the Communist party.

Those were frightening times indeed. It was the era of the Black Panther movement, the Civil Rights movement – and everything in between. White America was not prepared. A lashing out would occur.

Since her year-and-a-half incarceration in the late 1960s, Davis would continue her course as a freedom fighter, a movement worker – not just for Black people, but for women of every creed and color. She would find the correlation between Douglass’ struggles to live free and the women’s movement in her critically acclaimed study published in 1981 titled, Women, Race & Class, a study that linked Douglass with the first women’s rights convention, in which he made a public appearance to appeal for equality for all women regardless of color or status.

This fascinating Frederick Douglass book portrays the best of humanity – and sadly, the worst.

…and this is just the “Editor’s notes” portion of the Frederick Douglass book.

Man dominates Man…

Frederick Douglass himself gives us a somber glimpse into his daily existence. For those of us who’d like to believe we knew what that life entailed (because we’ve seen Alex Haley’s Roots), we couldn’t be further from the truth. The brutality with which Douglass endured was nothing short of incredible.

It wasn’t just the beatings, but the helplessness. Douglass describes “the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he [the overseer] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood.” There were numerous incidences when his master would appear out of nowhere – as if to be all places at all times – so as to “catch” some slave at some sort of treacherous act, when their only treachery, if indeed it was treachery, was Black at birth.

Reasons for beatings became so common it seemed Douglass was beaten just because it was Tuesday.

But as much brutality, violence and pillaging is described in this Frederick Douglass book, both Davis and Douglass also bring us hope.

In his description of the day he stood toe-to-toe with “The Snake,” the slave-owner (or “slave-breaker” as Davis calls him), Douglass reveals how he ‘became the master and the master became the slave.’ On that day Master Covey attacked Douglass, who fought back. Point for point, the teen proved stronger, stood taller than Covey was accustomed.

Calling for help from his nearby slaves—all of whom refused—Covey realized he was a beaten man. He lost something that day—the last day he would attempt to whip Douglass.

In her most diplomatic method, Davis proves what I never realized until now: The Black American slave era was not so much about Blacks and slavery as it was about the state of all humanity. In his moment of truth, Covey proved as much a victim of slavery as his own slaves. That era changed us all: Blacks, White, rich, poor – we were all affected, whether for the better, or for the worst—we were all affected.

Today the late, great Frederick Douglass is known as an abolitionist, freedom fighter, orator and fighter for the underdog – all those things. And Davis has shown to be a formidable opponent, gaining respect even from her former enemies. She continues the struggle even today.

Yes, Davis is more than adequately qualified to pen this Frederick Douglass book.

Their lives connected through resistance, through adversity, hatred and fear, Davis shows in this very compelling volume that Frederick Douglass was simply a man. And what all men and women were meant to be…free.

Brown is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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