Art, Activism And Frederick Douglass At National Portrait Gallery

Where would the Civil Rights Movement have been without Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratory and prose? Without pictures and video of firehoses in Birmingham. Without Emmitt Till’s disfigured face.

Or the anti-war movement without images of death in Vietnam?

Black Lives Matter would still exist without camera phones, but George Floyd’s murderers wouldn’t be in prison. Millions wouldn’t have taken to the streets in 2020 or finally woken up to America’s pervasive systemic racism and rampant racially-motivated police brutality.

Art driving protest–speeches, books, photographs–is not a modern invention. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) used these tools in the service of abolition. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. explores the relationship between art and protest during the 19th century through prints, photographs and ephemera from the great man’s life.

“He recognized at a young age the power of words and images,” John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and exhibition guest curator, told “He devoted his life to art and activism, and he saw them as twinned. He was the nineteenth century’s most powerful artist-activist, simply brilliant at using photographs and words as weapons to combat slavery and racism.”

Douglass’ life coincided with the dawn of photography. His activism spanned a golden age of photography, oratory, literature, and journalism.

“He mastered the arts of oratory, autobiography, the journalistic essay, and posing for a photographer,” Stauffer said. “He was the most photographed American of the 19th century, a public face of the nation, projecting a visual voice of democracy. He made every effort to circulate his photographs through engravings cut from them. Through the power and beauty of his images and words, he ‘out-citizened’ white citizens at a time when most whites did not believe that African Americans should be citizens.”

How was this possible for a man born into slavery in a country largely–violently–determined to hold Black people down?

From Slavery to Sensation

Douglass’ ascension into the most preeminent African American voice in the 1800s and one of the handful of most influential and famous Americans in the nation’s history owes itself equally to his merits and good fortune.

“Douglass had an extraordinary work ethic, he was immensely curious and dedicated,” Stauffer explained. “And physically strong and tall–over six feet, a half-foot taller than the average man–which helped him survive slavery.”

Size does matter. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were also comparative giants for their day. American presidents, on average, stand a great deal taller, literally, than the average citizen.

Douglass’ physical size and strength allowed him to outlast a sadistic “slave breaker,” Edward Covey, in a protracted fight as a teen. After suffering numerous whippings, Douglass stood up to the man. As long as he lived, he referred to the fight as the turning point in his life as a slave.

“He was also lucky to have been born and raised in the upper South and not sold into the Deep South or murdered for his rebelliousness as a slave and his constant battles against slavery and racism as a free man,” Stouffer added. “Had he been born in the Deep South, where most enslaved people lived, his chances of escaping to free soil would have been almost nil.”

Douglass’ circumstances were hardly favorable, but he did win something of a genetic and geographic lottery at birth.

He also caught a rare break, learning to read and write as a young boy, skills most slaveowners prohibited.

“In Baltimore, Douglass asked his mistress, Sophia Auld, to teach him to read, which she did, having never overseen an enslaved person before,” Stouffer said. “Her husband, Hugh Auld, found out and told her in front of Douglass, ‘if you learn him to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and this accomplished, he’ll be running away from himself.’ Hearing this, Douglass ‘understood the direct pathway to freedom,’ as he said.”

He hid books and newspapers, secretly reading them when he could. He practiced writing with chalk on the streets. He saved money to purchase “The Columbian Orator,” a collection of speeches and writings designed for young boys to master the arts of oratory and writing.

In 1836 Douglass tried escaping north, but was caught. Others had been brutalized or sent South for similar behavior. Good fortune smiled on Douglass once again and he was not. He finally did escape in 1838 with the help of Anna Murray, a free Black woman who worked as housekeeper.

They got married and moved to New Bedford, MA where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass.

In New Bedford he discovered the abolitionist paper The Liberator.

“The paper became my meat and drink,” Douglass wrote. “My soul was set all on fire.”

From here on out, Douglass wouldn’t require good luck to change the world. He would do that on his own.

“From (The Liberator) he learned how to use words and punchy verbs to combat slavery. Douglass was urged to speak,” Stouffer said. “His oration was so compelling that he was hired as a fulltime lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and soon became famous – oratory was then a popular form of entertainment, like sports today. That same year, 1841, he sat for his first photograph.”

For the next five years he traveled throughout the northern states, abolitionizing thousands of listeners.

“By 1844 he sounded nothing like a slave and audiences began accusing him of never having been one,” Stouffer said. “Not giving details about where he came from further fueled doubts about his authenticity as a fugitive. Such doubts threatened his career and so he ‘threw caution to the wind’ and wrote his life story, naming names, dates, places.”

In 1845 the American Anti-Slavery Society published “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.” Within three years, it went through eleven thousand copies in the U.S. and nine editions in England.

“He was now nationally famous,” Stouffer explained. “But with fame, his freedom was in jeopardy. (His owners) Thomas and Hugh Auld could easily track his whereabouts in the antislavery newspapers. Thomas publicly called Douglass a liar, and Hugh vowed to, ‘spare no pains or expense in order to regain possession of him’ and ‘place him in the cotton fields of the South.’”

Had the Aulds or hired slave catchers hunted Douglass down, Massachusetts could have done nothing to protect him. He fled to the British Isles for safety, spending almost two years there, speaking to ever larger audiences.

He returned to the U.S. in 1847, a legally free man after British sympathizers purchased his freedom. He moved to Rochester, N.Y. with his family and launched his own paper, The North Star, which became Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851 and Douglass’ Monthly in 1860 – the longest running Black paper in the nineteenth century.

“There was great power and beauty in his essays and speeches,” Stouffer said. “He likely spoke to more Americans than anyone else of his time.”

Douglass in Photography

Douglass’ words were powerful; his image, arguably, more so.

“Douglass, along with most Americans, believed that photography was a ‘truthful’ representation and the great democratic art,” Stouffer explained. “He also recognized that the sitter had agency in the outcome of a photographic portrait. He understood his role as an artist or performer, part of a pas de trois with the photographer and the camera. He always dressed up. His photographic portraits, along with those of numerous other African Americans, starkly contrasted the racist caricatures of Blacks created by whites.”

A long American tradition of white artists caricaturing African Americans in prints and paintings influenced public perception. White painters in the antebellum era almost always cast the devil as a Black man. Monkeys and happy slaves were other tropes.

Douglass, meanwhile, always presented himself, in dress, pose, and expression, as a dignified and respectable citizen.

“Photography was a truth-telling medium he emphasized. It bore witness to African Americans,’ and all humans,’ essential humanity, and it countered the racist caricatures by whites drawing freehand,” Stouffer said. “Douglass argued that photography inspired people to eradicate the sins of their society. It led them to activism. It stemmed from the power of imagination, which allowed people to appreciate photographs as accurate representations of some greater reality. It encouraged them to realize their ideals in an imperfect world.”

As Douglass put it: “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be in the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

This is a key message of the exhibition.

“Poets, prophets, and reformers were artists and activists. Activism inspired art and vice versa. Poets, prophets, and reformers saw their community or nation as it was–with all its gross inequalities, injustices, and prejudices–and they contrasted it with what ought to be. The contradiction inspired them to remove structural inequalities, injustices, and prejudices,” Stouffer explained. “Douglass and most other abolitionists, along with many antislavery advocates, considered themselves poets, prophets, and reformers. As a group, they sat for their photographic portraits with greater frequency, distributed them more effectively, and were more taken with photography, than other groups.”

Douglass went so far as to say that “the moral and social influence of pictures” was more important than “the making of its laws.”

“One Life”

“One Life” showcases over 35 objects from all phases of Douglass’ life. On display are the ledger documenting his birth, a pamphlet of his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” oration, two of his three autobiographies, a letter from Douglass to Lincoln, portraits of activists in Douglass’ circle such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and portraits by the prominent Black photographers Augustus Washington and Cornelius Marion Battey.

Beyond the National Portrait Gallery, Douglass’ influence in contemporary art can be seen everywhere from television and film, to theatre and fine art.

“Douglass’ 168 photographic portraits have left a vast and important visual legacy, inspiring 21st century artist-activists to portray him in all kinds of public art–especially murals, but also in paintings, prints, drawings, postage stamps, and magazine covers,” Stouffer said. “I did not realize how many artists and writers in the 20th and 21st centuries were hugely inspired by Douglass, nor did I appreciate how frequently Douglass’s portrait, based on a photo, appeared in paintings, chromolithographs, books, as well as in common household items such brooches and lapel pins, spoons, plates, mugs, and other silverware.”

“One Life” will remain on view until April 21, 2024; admission to the National Portrait Gallery is free and the museum is open 11:30 AM to 7:00 PM seven days a week.

Further exploration of Douglass in D.C. should feature a visit to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site which reopened on July 4, 2023, following its 2020 closure due to COVID and then subsequent renovations.

Anyone interested in Douglass will also surely find worthwhile “Beyond Granite: Pulling Together,” a new exhibition placing a series of six commemorative art installations on the National Mall. On view through September 18, 2023, “Beyond Granite” asked six leading contemporary artists to respond to a central question: “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?”


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