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The Legacy of Frederick Douglass in Poetry and Primary Sources
Exploring resources for insights on the life and enduring influence of escaped slave, abolitionist writer, orator and American hero on his birthday
Frederick Douglass, human rights leader in the fight against slavery, has been in the news even more than usual this February. Now, we’re piling on to celebrate the birthday he chose for himself.
His actual birthday isn’t known, but Frederick Douglass selected February 14 as the date to mark his birth. Originally, Black History Month was celebrated as Black History Week during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (February 12).
Diverse content can inspire researchers
For researchers, thoughtfully curated and enriched digitized primary source materials – such as ProQuest’s Black Abolitionist Papers, Historical Newspapers and History Vault – are a trove of crucial information for in-depth scholarly insight into the life and accomplishments of Douglass.
However, ProQuest also provides researchers with additional resources to creatively complement primary sources. For example, works of literature can augment research with an emotionally immersive experience, and a more visceral approach to understanding the impact and legacy of historic events and people, such as slavery, the abolitionist movement and Frederick Douglass.
Literature inspired by – and written by – Frederick Douglass
Douglass, who died 100 years ago, endures as a quintessential American hero because he embodied some of the most exalted, idealistic qualities of United States:
in the words of Langston Hughes in his auspicious poem, “Freedom Plow.”1 But “Freedom Plow” isn’t the only poem Hughes penned with Douglass as his muse, nor is Hughes the only author who was influenced by this dauntless champion of human rights, activism and education.
Generations of poets provide unique insights
One of the earliest works in the literature collection related to Douglass is an 1856 poem by pastor and abolitionist, E.P. Rogers, “The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise.”2 According to the ProQuest Literature Online biography, “Rogers’s clever and courageous attacks on slavery distinguished him from other African-American poets of the antebellum period.”
“The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise” is a satirical 925-line poem, including a dialogue between “Slavery” and “Freedom,” condemning pro-slavery legislation. The poem, bearing several references to Douglass – “...(mighty man,/Whose powerful eloquence can fan/The human passions to a flame/Whene’ever he speaks in Freedom’s name)” – instills a profound sense of Douglass’s influence during his lifetime, with insight into what he signified to his contemporaries, expressed in rousing octosyllabic couplets, meant to be read aloud.
Just as Rogers’s work provides insight into how Douglass inspired people in his lifetime, “In Memoriam” poems Cordelia Ray3 and Eloise Bibb4 reveal the wrenching sense of loss people experienced when he died. Throughout the following decades, over the course of various literary eras and social movements, from the Harlem Renaissance, to the civil rights and women’s rights era, generations of poets employed the rhythm and imagery of poetry to express and explore the significance of Douglass’s legacy.
Librarian-publisher-poet Dudley Randall’s “Frederick Douglass and the Slave-Breaker”5 intimately recreates a key scene of brutal confrontation from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass6 to reveal an epiphany; educator-editor-poet Sterling Plumpp’s “Quilomban”7 places Frederick Douglass in the context of a long of history of racial exploitation, going back to a community of fugitive slaves in colonial Brazil, through the 20th century and segregation and apartheid. Feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, who according to her ProQuest Literature Online biography “displays intense preoccupations with place, roots and heritage,”8 conjures the spirit of Frederick Douglass in her poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”9 as she explores themes of domination and writing “in the oppressor’s language.”
Through works like these, a deeper understanding of the ongoing influence of Douglass emerges, even as struggles continue for freedom and equality.
In the words of Hughes, in his poem, “Frederick Douglass: 1917-1895”10: “He died in 1895./He is not dead.”
- Hughes, L. (1995). Freedom's Plow. Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Rogers, E. P. (1856). The Repeal of The Missouri Compromise Considered. Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Ray, H. C. (1910). In Memoriam (Frederick Douglass). Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Bibb, E. A. (1971). In Memoriam Frederick Douglass. Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Randall, D. (1981). Frederick Douglass and the Slave Breaker. Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
- Plumpp, S. (1993). Quilomban.
- Adrienne Rich author page from ProQuest One Literature.
- Rich, A. C. (1975). The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.
- Hughes, L. (1995). Frederick Douglass: 1817–1895.