The portrait of Frederick Douglass - In conversation with Celeste-Marie Bernier

Posted on February 20, 2018 by Heather Gallagher

February marks the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. To celebrate this, we’re exploring the life of the compelling orator, abolitionist, and activist. Alongside the recent release of Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass 1818-2018, editor Celeste-Marie Bernier discusses the relationship Douglass perceived between activism, authorism, and artistry.



Celeste-Marie Bernier explores the life of Frederick Douglass further on the BBC 'In Our Time' podcast


Pictures and Power investigates Frederick Douglass as the subject of visual culture, could you tell us why you chose to focus on Douglass?

We edited this collection on Frederick Douglass in light of the fact that he is the most photographed American, black or white, in the nineteenth century. This collection came from a previous co-edited volume, Picturing Frederick Douglass, in which we gathered the entire archive of Douglass’ portraits. For Douglass, who was a formerly enslaved man, photography was a way to fight back against racist caricature and we wanted to do justice to the question in this collection of how art is a means to self-representation and to self-liberation. 


The book is being published alongside the bicentenary of Douglass’ birth. How and why do you think work of Douglass is still impactful today?

Douglass as a figure is committed to social justice on the grounds that he held the belief that the fight for freedom had no colour, creed, nation, sex, or class. He lives on to teach us how to continue the fight for self-representation, for equality, and for human rights and his language has a power that lives on. Douglass was interested in what he described as writing as a power, and he also used images as a power. He found that through images he was able to speak and tell his story in different ways. For Douglass, the question of the fight for social justice is all about how you control your own self-representation, a notion that is still really pressing today in how you fight back with regards to white supremacy and police brutality. He’s was very much about grassroots campaigning which is at the heart of Black Lives Matter radicalism.


Did you find any of the images particularly striking or memorable?

Douglass’ view in creating his own image or portrait is a really powerful one. You see, across all of his images, his belief that the image is a touchstone not for his own self-representation but for the representation of enslaved people. Douglass, in his photographs and his portraits, is representing not an individual experience but the experiences of enslaved people generally. He spoke in an interview himself about how he was trying to show the inner via the outer man. His portraits are mesmerising and powerful because they captivate you with this pained, powerful, difficult expression and in that he is trying of speak to the suffering of those who didn’t survive slavery.



The book draws upon previously unseen archival material. How did you go about conducting your research? Did you learn anything particularly surprising from the unpublished material?

That there are SO many Douglasses! The book is really about the fact that we have Frederick Douglass, and we have the great myth, we have a great freedom fighter, we have the big American hero, but we also have the Frederick Douglass that is harder to find. He’s much more located in the life of Frederick Bailey (the name of Douglass when he was born into slavery). The big idea is that when you move from slavery to freedom you move into a new world of self-representation and liberation. Douglass’ archives and especially his unpublished archives show us that he took the traumatised self with him into freedom. A surprise of the archive is one letter in which he writes, I looked so ugly, I hated to see myself in the glass, they want no living for me. Douglass had a real struggle with his sense of his memory of slavery, and you see that pain of the memory of slavery in the photographs. That’s probably the most powerful experience in looking behind the myth of Frederick Douglass.


Why do you think this is the first book on Frederick Douglass? How do you think it will pave the way for further research into his life and work?

The big question in slavery studies is often historical, political, socio-cultural, and is rooted in bodies of evidence, finding historiographical proof and finding factual material. The life of Douglass, and thousands of enslaved individuals has often been located around finding the biographies of their lives, trying to establish the facts of their existence which are really difficult to find given that they live in enslaved records. The focus on discovering their narratives, stories and experiences means that there has been less attention on trying to understand their use of images and how they used visual culture to communicate their experiences. Increasingly, scholars are starting to do this, and our hope with the book was to create a body of work, essays by folks working across academia, activism, museums and archives and to include a large number of photographs so that people can go on and do closer readings and begin to sift through real detailed ideas of how he’s using photography.


Celeste will be giving talks on Douglass on the following dates:
Friday 23rd February - The Legislative Services Building, Annapolis Maryland
Sunday 25th February – The National Gallery of Art

Listen to Celeste-Marie Bernier discuss Frederick Douglass on BBC In Our Time

Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass 1818-2018 is the latest in our Liverpool Studies in International Slavery series.

Celeste-Marie Bernier is Professor of Black Studies and Personal Chair in English Literature, University of Edinburgh. Her co-editor, Bill E. Lawson, is Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at the University of Memphis.


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