Ta-Nehisi Coates — bestselling author and distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute — confessed to a packed Yale Art Gallery auditorium that he first became aware of Yale historian David Blight around 2008 while seeking educationally enriching background audio for his steady videogaming habit.
Coates had an intense interest in Civil War history and began looking for the best recorded university lecture courses on the subject. He soon stumbled upon the then newly published Yale Open Courses audio for Blight’s renowned Yale class, “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.” Listening to Blight’s lectures “altered my path as a journalist and as a writer,” said Coates. He added that he even credits this audited course with inspiring three out of the eight essays collected in his own most recently published book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” (2017).
“And it’s also the reason I’m sitting here now — to honor David Blight,” said Coates. “You guys have quite the jewel here.”
Indeed, the Dec. 6 conversation between Coates and Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History, was all about honoring the historian’s latest achievement: his critically-acclaimed biography of the famous abolitionist and orator “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Sponsored in part by the Belonging at Yale initiative, Coates and Blight’s discussion about the book was hosted at the Yale University Art Gallery by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, one of the many programs supported by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.
A new biography for the great autobiographer
Coates opened the discussion by asking Blight when and how he decided that the world needed a new biography about Douglass, who not only wrote his own famous three-part autobiography but also has had several notable biographies written about him already.
“I didn’t know if there needed to be one or not,” said Blight. “But I did this because of the chance encounter with a private collection, never seen before, of Douglass manuscript material.” The “chance encounter” occurred in 2006 while Blight was in Savannah, Georgia giving a lecture to schoolteachers about Douglass, he explained. His host introduced him to Walter Evans, a private collector who had asked to meet with the leading Douglass scholar.
After initially seeing Evans’s collection, Blight said he “didn’t decide right away to do it,” but was struck by how the documents within it were “especially about the last third of Douglass’ life,” both his life as the patriarch of a large, extended family and his life in Washington politics. The core of the collection, said Blight, is 10 “massive” family scrapbooks, compiled by one of Douglass’ sons.
“It was an illumination of the older Douglass that we never could have done before,” Blight noted.
But the prospect of documenting a life as rich as Douglass’ from cradle to grave, in its spheres both public and private, was still daunting, said Blight. Coates asked Blight if part of the intimidation was “having to disappear into something like that?” Blight said yes, emphatically. He said he went into the project expecting to devote the rest of his life to writing Douglass’ story.
In the end, the collection material led Blight to embark on the journey into Douglass’ life, he said, because “the older Douglass became the most interesting part of all.” Coates asked why.
“After the Civil War, you’ve got a man who is, for one thing, the prototypical example of the old, radical outsider who becomes a political insider,” said Blight. Additionally, Douglass was by then the patriarch of a large extended family, “almost all of whom become financially dependent on him,” said Blight, adding that it was “a loving but conflicted family.”
Finally, by that point, Douglass was also “the aging great man on his pedestal,” said Blight, noting that the next generation of African American activist, intellectual, and political figures had come up and wanted “to knock him off.” This made it, in Blight’s words, “a very modern story.”
Coates and Blight discussed this cyclic relationship between the ageing activists of one generation being replaced by younger counterparts, and Douglass’ anomalous mentor-mentee, grandfather-granddaughter relationship with a very young Ida B. Wells, the path-breaking journalist who was just beginning her anti-lynching campaign.
Coates asked Blight to elaborate on pre-bellum Douglass, and Blight briefly charted Douglass’ ideological shift from pacifism — as practiced by leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — to a belief in “revolutionary violence,” which led him to advocate for the abolition of slavery by any means. They talked about the violence and racism Douglass encountered at every stop of his abolition speaking tours, and yet, how Douglass always escaped with his life.
Blight said the most likely reason why Douglass wasn’t assassinated is that “the truth is people didn’t carry guns as much.” The only gun the average American might own was a hunting rifle, said Blight, but those weren’t carried into public spaces. However, Blight emphasized, Douglass’ detractors would bring rocks, bricks, and rotten food to throw at the orator — one spectator even hurled a live pig — something, Blight quipped, that “was probably a badge of honor.”
These speaking engagements, for which Douglass was travelling “everywhere, all the time,” quickly made him “the most photographed American of the 19th century,” said Blight, adding that it didn’t hurt that Douglass was so good looking, and well-dressed — attired better than most of his audience members, in fact. This image was intentional, said Blight, noting that through his clothes and speech, Douglass was trying to subvert and confound “the image of Black people” at the time.
Coates closed by asking Blight to briefly address “one of the most painful aspects of the book,” pointing to Douglass’ late writings about Native Americans, which are full of “shocking” and “almost imperialist” sentiments, he said. Blight explained that Coates was referencing Douglass’ writings during the fight for the Fourteenth Amendment, where he used gross stereotypes about Native Americans to bolster claims about the relative worthiness of African Americans to become enfranchised citizens.
Coates said “as hard as it was to read … I found it tremendously important because what those of us with certain politics forget is that oppression is not ennobling.” The two noted that many of the white women’s suffrage advocates — many of whom were previous allies of Douglass’ — also turned to racism in their own rhetoric after it became clear that women would be shut out of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In reference to both Douglass and the women’s suffragists, Coates asked Blight: “When you see this turn to racism, doesn’t it say something about how it suffused the culture at that point?”
“Absolutely,” said Blight. “It’s America.”
This conversation is available in its entirety via a video recording courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Center. Blight’s biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” is available for purchase now, in this final month of the bicentennial of Douglass’s birthyear.