On Perception and Frederick Douglass’s Legacy

I have read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass almost every year since my junior year of high school. Rightfully so; it is a harrowing first-hand account of Douglass’s fight to freedom after a lifetime of enslavement. Every edition I have owned has featured a large photo of Douglass on the cover, but they are always different. Douglass was the most photographed man of the 19 century, and that was no accident. With the advancements in photography  technology, Douglass took advantage of the time and sat for his portrait with a variety of cameras and left of 160 surviving photos.

These photographs allowed Douglass to put a face to his story, and just as he did in his autobiography, made sure that he was presenting his image exactly how he wanted. In all of the photos he is dressed immaculately, his hair is quaffed to match the style of the times, and he sits proud and distinguished. These choices were decided on to make white Europeans and Americans examine their own prejudices against black people. By presenting in a eurocentric style in his portraits, he gains the approval of the white sympathizers.  

More importantly, Douglass takes ownership of his self-hood with his portraiture. He regains his agency over his image in photography more than he could in narrative where his story could be contested or interpreted any way the reader wants. A viewer can interoperate a portrait, but they cannot argue its validity. The combination of mass producing his portrait and his narrative forces the reader to confront that the horrors of enslavement were not just a vague act that happened to faceless, nameless group. Individual people with names and faces faced different hardships and suffered at the hands of white enslavers. Douglass’s many photographs show a man who survived and continues to live outside of literature. 

The photo above was produced by Phineas Headley, Jr. and James E. Reed. It was taken in 1894, one year before Douglass’s death. I picked it because it made me recall this sentence from his autobiography during his lowest point living with Edward Covey:

“My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

In this photograph, you can see the spark in his eye. Although he still sits tall and proud, he finally seems relaxed and peaceful. I like to think that this photo is full circle way of showing his life work and that he beat all the oppressors that once stood against him. 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier, Broadview Press, 2018.


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