- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself: A New Critical Edition
In his “Editor’s Note,” Greg Ruggiero describes this book as an exciting and most timely way to reintroduce Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass together as “two of the most important abolitionist intellectuals in U. S. history.” Many younger readers will be familiar with Douglass’s role in the mid-nineteenth century as a leader of the movement to abolish African American chattel slavery, but some may be puzzled by the reference to Davis as a twenty-first-century “abolitionist.” What, they may wonder, is she trying to abolish? Just as Douglass was dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned him and his people, Davis is dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned her and still imprisons millions of Americans, mostly people of color: the modern American prison system. This volume suggests how these two heroic figures embody a continuum of struggle for freedom, from the America of the slave plantation through the America of the prison-industrial complex.
A mainly rural society with a political economy based on slavery, the America of the 1840s was also a hodgepodge of ex-colonies with no sense of a national literature and a kind of cultural inferiority complex in relation to England and Europe. But then came the discovery that the United States was actually contributing a new genre to world literature: the slave narrative. As the Reverend Ephraim Peabody put it in 1849: “America has the mournful honor of adding a new department to the literature of civilization—the autobiographies of escaped slaves.” Preeminent among the hundreds of these works was the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass went on to become a major figure in nineteenth-century American life and letters.
But during the 1940s and 1950s, Frederick Douglass was expunged from the pages of American literary history. Even as late as the 1970s, despite his growing rediscovery in the 1960s, the multi-volume standard Bibliography of American Literature listed none of his works and his name did not even appear in the 1,555 pages of the 1974 fourth edition of the standard Literary History of the United States, which devoted three chapters to the literature produced in the South through the Civil War, all by white men. Today, however, the 1845 Narrative is available in dozens of editions and formats, not to mention SparkNotes and CliffsNotes. What brought Douglass back to us?
One of the lasting achievements of the liberation movements that emerged in the 1960s was the rediscovery of their antecedents and reconnection with these historic struggles for freedom, which had been wiped from memory by Cold War culture and politics. When Angela Davis in 1969 was denounced as a communist and fired from her appointment in the philosophy department of UCLA, the responses showed how far we had marched from the swamps of the 1950s. As Ruggerio describes, Davis fought back, with vast support from UCLA colleagues and students: “In an act of resistance, she showed up for the first day of her course, ‘Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature.’ Expecting to deliver a lecture to the 166 students who had enrolled in the class, she instead found more than 1,500 members of the UCLA student body and faculty.” Her lecture that day and in the next meeting of the course were about the profound significance and contemporary relevance of Frederick Douglass’s writing. In the present volume these two historic lectures by Davis form both an apt introduction to the Douglass Narrative and an electrifying connection between the struggles of two epochs. [End Page 298]
The following year, Davis herself literally embodied the continuum between nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American experience as she was incarcerated for almost two years, much of the time in solitary confinement, on bogus charges of murder and kidnap. To raise money for her legal defense, the...