Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother: A Novel by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother is set in 1867; two years after the end of America’s Civil War and solidly in the reconstruction era. At this point in time, the country, and especially the southern states, were poised on the blade of a knife. The hope of the newly emancipated former slaves warred with the intransigence of their former masters, each seeking to pull the country down a different path. It was a time of possibility and exquisite danger. A time when, theoretically, black men were as free as their white counterparts, but the reality of their status remained mired in the past.

Into this simmering brew Robert Hicks draws Mariah Reddick, former slave, now midwife in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Mariah, world weary and suspicious of the future, nevertheless seeks to build an independent life for herself in the town where she has spent most of her adult life. Mariah’s son, Theopolis, embodies all the hope and promise of this time period. He works as a cobbler, but has aspirations of becoming a politician, and representing his people and their needs in the newly reunited country. We also meet George Tole, former sniper with the Union army, drifting through life after the war, finding it increasingly difficult to live as a regular person after what he has seen and done in battle.

When a riot breaks out at a political rally where Theopolis is giving a speech, Mariah is drawn in against her will into the world of politics and corruption, murder and injustice. Where the hopes and the dreams of black men crash against the wall of white racism.

Robert Hicks writes this era masterfully and lyrically. You can almost smell the dust on the roads, feel the heat on your skin. You can see the angry men “with bricked up faces” who are pushing so hard against change, against any perceived loss of status. In this novel Hicks illustrates the tensions between blacks and whites, between former master and slave. We see how the nature of justice can warp and change, especially when race and/or gender conspire to place you at the bottom of the social strata.

This book, though a work of historical fiction,reverberates in the present day. We find these echoes in Ferguson, Missouri, in Philando Castle and Trayvon Martin, and other victims of racially-motivated violence, in the work of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a story that deserves to be read. That helps to link the inequities of our past to our present day. Robert Hicks has written a spectacular story, one that seems at once very far away and very, very close.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan Mother will be available on September 13th, 2016.