Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) argued that newly emancipated black Americans should assimilate into Anglo-American society and culture. Social assimilation would then lead to the entire physical amalgamation of the two groups, and the emergence of a new intermediate group that would be fully American. He, like those who were to follow, was driven by a vision of universal human fraternity in the light of which the varieties of human difference were incidental and far less important than the ethical, religious, and political idea of personhood.
Douglass’s version of this vision was formed by natural law theories, and a Protestant Christian conception of universal human fraternity, as it was for much of the abolition movement in the US and Britain. His vision and his fierce commitment to abolitionism, moreover, were characterized by his own experience of slavery. His political and ethical vision, his moral universe, generated his conception of America, his interpretation of the US constitution, and his solution to the Nation’s race problem.
Unpacking Douglass’s vision will help us understand those positions that follow his legacy. Just as those who argue that race ought to be conserved turn to the figure of W.E.B. Du Bois, those who disagree with the conservation of race need to consider Douglass’s arguments, and their relationship to Douglass’s assimilation-amalgamation solution. Moreover, those that work under the long shadow of Douglass would do well to carefully consider the historical reasons why Du Bois’s and Booker T. Washington’s strategies for racial justice eclipsed Douglass’s.
This chapter reviews Douglass’s religious and political ideals, his application of them to the issues of race, black American identity, and constitutional interpretation, and how his ideals and positions developed into his projection about the future of race in the US. All of these matters are guiding features of the anti-race and racial nominalist positions in the contemporary conservation of race debate.
Additionally, this paper asks that we consider the cognitive and emotional conflicts that arise within us as we reflect upon Douglass’s vision and this Nation’s contradictions and failures in its long racial history. Douglass, of course, frequently referenced this conflict; it was at the center of his experience of being American. In his first narrative, Douglass characterized this conflict as his “soul’s complaint.” As a slave he yearned for freedom, and came to understand the liberal political and religious ideals that surrounded him. God’s justice or the ideal of American justice were not immanent; this gave him much pain and caused in him a good measure of moral disorientation, yet he resolved to make up for the absence of divine and natural justice through his own and other subaltern resources. And as a freeman and abolitionist he yearned for a greater reconciliation of the Nation: between black and white, and between the Nation and its ideals. In both instances the obstacles to his desires, the enormity of the task, and the elusiveness of Justice often left him somewhere between madness and reconciliation to his misery. His turmoil, a reaction of moral indignation and disorientation, a reaction to bondage in the putative land of liberty, is ours as well.