In the adjacent post I prefaced the dedicatory speech by Frederick Douglass at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial with a quote from David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Douglass. I was prompted to post Douglass’s speech by Professor Blight’s current Washington Post column that I passed over in silence in my post. Our friend Ken Masugi is not so inclined. He comments: “Unfortunately, Blight threw away his scholarship to be cozy with the left. This op-ed of his in the Washington Post, which appeared online last night, is disgraceful. I quote Blight’s real, pre-sell-out argument in the first paragraph of my “Lincoln’s new assassins” column, citing Blight’s Douglass biography. Last night, I fired off this letter to the Post.”
Distinguished Frederick Douglass biographer David Blight should be ashamed of himself. His op-ed “Yes, the Freedmen’s Memorial uses racist imagery. But don’t tear it down” (June 25) contradicts what he writes about the Memorial in the first pages of his fine biography. In his column, Blight asserts: “It was and is a racist image.”
In his biography, historian Blight provides one of the best defenses of the image of the rising (not kneeling!) freedman. Quoting the head of the Memorial Commission, Blight explains that the sculptor had altered his conception from a “’kneeling slave … represented as perfectly passive’ (freedom given), to an ‘emancipated slave [as] agent in his own deliverance’ (freedom seized), … the monument as an ‘ideal group … [was] converted into the literal truth of history.’” Blight imputes no racism. In fact, the sculptor changed his creation from what Blight now attributes to it!
Moreover, this spirit of freedom is evident to any unbiased observer, when one takes account of the totality of the imagery of the statue–from Lincoln’s Promethean, life-giving gesture (“the new birth of freedom” aimed at all Americans, not just the freedman) to the image of George Washingon on the column. Here is a muscular man, who seconds before had been prostrate on his face, now rising up. He should of course have never been a slave!
Fortunately, the rest of historian Blight’s book account corresponds with journalist Blight’s vigorous defense of the statue and of Frederick Douglass’s speech at its unveiling, which “brilliantly recruited Lincoln’s memory to the cause of black equality and rights.” But Blight’s subject Douglass would have told the whole truth to power.
Ken Masugi is Lecturer, Center for American Government, Johns Hopkins University, AAP.