Fredrick Douglass: Visual Evangelist
Frederick Douglass was the most photographed individual in the 19th century. By design! Douglass had the sense that this new technology would shape how people viewed the world.
“He considered photography the most democratic of arts, a crucial aid in the quest to end slavery and achieve civil rights. With Louis Daguerre’s invention of the form of photography known to us as the daguerreotype, ‘the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago,’ Douglass said. Photography dignified the poorest of the poor; it was a potent equalizer.”
“Douglass’ portraits and words sent a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers. This is why he always dressed up for the photographer, appearing ‘majestic in his wrath,’ as one admirer said of a portrait from 1852.”
“Among the 160 distinct Douglass poses, two continuities stand out. First, he almost never showed a smile — refuting the racist caricatures of blacks as happy slaves and servants. Second, he presented himself, in dress, pose and expression, as a dignified and respectable citizen. Douglass’ portrait gallery contributed to his persona as one of the nation’s preeminent ‘self-made men,’ the title of one of his signature speeches. Baltimore Sun
As I visited Boston’s African American Museum of History exhibit “Picturing Frederick Douglas” I was struck by Douglass’ s brilliant vision of how impactful photos would be in the abolitionist movement. He knew he could combine his powerful oratory and written works with the refined, stoic imagery of his portraits to help invoke a stronger emotional appeal for the movement. He becomes America’s first visual evangelist!
The timing of my visit was also serendipitous, coming just hours after Mr. Trump’s Alabama rally where he used insulting and vulgar language to demand the firing of today’s visual crusaders in the NFL. These players, like Douglass, have used powerful imagery to raise awareness for their cause. When Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee last year during the national anthem, those images instantly created a national dialogue. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that his actions have caused a national discussion. His motives and methods have been both praised and reviled. As the New York Times put it in their very insightful piece about Colin Kaepernick:
“Almost immediately, many of the complex real-world issues of the times — police violence, presidential politics and the foment of racial clashes that continue to boil over in places like Charlottesville, VA — all flushed through the filter of Kaepernick’s gesture. Time magazine put him on the cover, kneeling next to the words, The Perilous Fight.”
Many have shown outrage and anger at the venue Kaepernick and other athletes have used–taking great offense that they would kneel instead of stand for the national anthem. Many feel it is disrespectful to veterans, others insist that sport is not the place for political protest. The national anthem at ball games has a long and complicated history, as does using sports as a venue to discuss the politics of the day.
Whether you agree or disagree that institutional racism exists in the United States or that police brutality is a real threat to black communities, there is no debate that, like Douglass, these athletes are using visual images in powerful ways to reach a wider audience. In regards to how they choose to raise awareness: no one person, group or ideology has ownership of patriotism or its symbols. We use these symbols to inspire us to live up to our ideals. Some veterans are supportive of this quiet expression of protest. This is only one example of dozens of stories where veterans show support:
I am confident if Douglass were alive today he would give these athletes the same advice he gave young black men of his time:
“Less than a month before his death, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”