This post is part 1 of our 4-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. We invite you to read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite in our online poll! Polls open early April and the winning author receives a $10,000 prize.
This week we are chatting with author Tonya Bolden about her new book, Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In your author’s note you share a concern that Frederick Douglass expressed during his life time “I shall never get beyond Frederick Douglass the self-educated fugitive slave.” You write that in your own experience working with young people, most know him as an “escaped slave.” What are some of the most important parts of his life and his work that you hope young people will learn from this book?
Tonya Bolden: What I hope sticks with readers is that Frederick Douglass was a humanitarian, an intellectual, a man with an insatiable curiosity and hunger for knowledge. And there’s this: he saw himself as a citizen of the word.
DCHM: You write that Douglass was often not “in lockstep” with other “brands” of abolitionism. How was Douglass’s vision for abolition different from other prominent abolitionists of the 19th century?
TB: Douglass’s brand of abolitionism did not rule out the use of violence for the cause. Also, while some abolitionists thought it dead-wrong to be involved in politics (including voting), Douglass came to believe that there was merit in trying to work within the system to change the system.
DCHM: In your book, you draw out what a truly international figure Frederick Douglass was. How do you think his experiences abroad impacted his work back in the United States?
TB: Frederick Douglass’s time abroad in the 1840s, after the release of his first autobiography, opened his eyes to the big picture: that the exploitation and oppression of a people was not just an American problem. It was a human problem. After he saw, firsthand, the desperate plight of so many Irish souls, he wrote: “the cause of humanity is one the world over.”
It brings to mind a passage from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Douglass understood the universality of things. When you operate from that perspective, that understanding, you are bound to be more of a force wherever you campaign for social justice. You can’t help but be more of a force for justice wherever you are.
DCHM: Facing Frederick weaves together so many sources to tell Frederick Douglass’s life story. How did you go about doing the research for this book?
TB: I began my research by reading or rereading secondary sources, including Frederick Douglass by William S. McFeely, The Lives of Frederick Douglass by Robert S. Levine, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer, and David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass’ Civil War (Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom was not yet out.) Another crucial read: Volume One Douglass’s Correspondence edited by John R. Kaufman-McKivigan (Volume 2 was not yet out.) I also relished beholding and meditating on all the images—every known photograph of the great man—in John Stauffer’s Picturing Frederick Douglass.
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress—what a feast! And how daunting (roughly 7,400 items!). There I zeroed in on the diary he kept during his 1886-87 travels in Europe and North Africa. Fascinating too were the financial records. How a person spends money is very revealing.
To feel Douglass, to walk his shoes, more than once I visited his final home, Cedar Hill, thanks to the National Park Service’s virtual tour. Stepping into one of his parlors, the bedrooms, the kitchen, and that library of his—terrific time travel!
DCHM: You have written about Frederick Douglass before in other books like Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl. Did you have any surprising discoveries while writing this new book?
TB: Before I began working on Facing Frederick, I did not know that this eloquent man, this journalist, this writer struggled with spelling all his life. Nor did I know that at times he suffered from what he called bouts of “melancholy.” Given all that he achieved in life, he became all the more a monumental American man in my eyes.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass?
TB: Honest. Probing. Passionate.
By Caitlin O’Keefe