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The Visionary Genius of Frederick Douglass: Contradiction and Change

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, February 25, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2112
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Frederick Douglass (National Archives)

Frederick Douglass was a visionary—a prophet who could see a better future that lay just beyond reach. His talents were nothing short of extraordinary and he put his exceptional gifts to use in the service of freedom, helping to drive American slavery into oblivion. After the carnage of the Civil War, he played a central role in the re-founding of the American republic, and spent subsequent decades defending and perfecting it.

Historian Richard Bell, a professor at the University of Maryland, examines Douglass’s life to reveal more than another great man on a pedestal. He was the slave who dreamed of being a senator, the unlettered child with no formal schooling who wrote three autobiographies and became one of our greatest literary figures. His life bursts with contradiction and with change. Douglass was the dignified, brilliant, and courageous freedom fighter who could sometimes be insecure, vain, and arrogant. He was an outspoken feminist who treated his own long-suffering wife like his servant. He was the fire-breathing insurgent who would eventually become an out-of-touch elder statesman.

As he explores this many-sided man’s life, family, and career, Bell finds that to understand how the boy born into bondage in 1818 became the Frederick Douglass that we hold in such esteem, his visionary genius needs to be seen not as innate, God-given, and infallible, but instead as the imperfectly beautiful product of growth, change, self-doubt, and struggle.

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