ARC Review – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

38530663

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight

Genre: American History, Biography

Length: 896 Pages

Coming: October 2nd, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.

Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.

In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.

ratingfour

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not impacted by the publisher. 

While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.

Frederick-Douglas-reddit.com-colorized-history-1-736x900Blight’s biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical figure, but as a man. The regal looking figure we can see in photos today was once a small boy, treated as property by the Auld family. He was heartbroken when he was emotionally rejected by his mistress, Sophia Auld, who had begun his education before her husband convinced her it was dangerous to educate a slave. He had a granddaughter who liked to braid his hair. His love of music was bordering on the spiritual.

He also, like all of us, had flaws. He may have been unfaithful to his wife. His emphasis on self-reliance was so extreme that it at times felt like a blind spot. He was a self-made man who pulled himself up out of slavery to become a highly influential figure and seemed at times almost disdainful of anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same. But that single-minded determination was perhaps his defining trait; he fought for equality quite literally up to his dying day. Douglass had a speaking arrangement scheduled for the evening of his death, before a heart attack took him unexpectedly.

“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Blight’s recounting of the life of Frederick Douglass is intensely researched and thorough. It was not quite as readable as other biographies I’ve read, such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, but there’s something to be said for valuing substance over style. Reading this was an infinitely valuable education experience, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

Purchase links

indie boundamazonbambarnes and noble

Thank you for reading! Have you read any good biographies lately? What’s your favorite historical period to read about? Please share in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

6493208
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
by Rebecca Skloot

Genre: Biography, Science

Length: 370 Pages

Released: February 2, 2010

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

ratingfour

Henrietta Lacks was one of the unsung heroes of medical science. Rebecca Skloot sought to change that with her book by bringing her name to light.

The format was one of this book’s biggest strengths. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was as much about the author’s research process and bonding with Henrietta’s family as it was about the information she uncovered in the process. Consequently, it creates an overall impression of being on that journey of discovery along with Skloot and a sense of emotional investment in the people involved, especially Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter.

The book is imbued with a sense of respect for the family. Medical scientists and society at large have benefited immensely from research which depended on Henrietta’s cells, and a great deal of financial gain has come from it over the years, profits which were not passed on to her family. Countless medical advances came about because of cells that were taken for research purposes without Henrietta’s consent when she sought treatment for her cancer. Deborah Lacks was deeply troubled by the unwillingness of any researchers to help the family understand the nature of the research involving their mother, as well as the lack of recognition for Henrietta herself,  who remained anonymous for so many years.

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a story about the Lacks family, racism, medical science, and, just as importantly, about informed consent. While medical tissue research is undoubtedly a net positive for society as a whole, Skloot brings up troubling issues regarding informed consent and the law’s lack of regard for whether patients may wish to participate in this research. The final chapter of the book explores this issue in a nuanced and thoughtful manner. This was an informative and thought-provoking read.

Purchase links

indie boundamazonbambarnes and noble

Thank you for reading! Have you read any good non-fiction lately? Any thoughts on this book? Share in the comments! Capture2

You can also follow me TumblrFacebook, or GoodReads!