Freedom Fighter Frederick Douglass’ Prescient Media Savvy

Long before social media, the notion of people having or embodying a “brand,” or the concept of recreating one’s self for public consumption and extended relevance, freedom fighters Sojourner Truth (born circa 1797; died 1883) and Frederick Douglass (born 1818; died 1895) were shrewdly crafting and disseminating their images in their fights for the freedom and equal rights of slaves/African Americans. Director Thomas Allen Harris’s documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People outlines, among many issues around the historical representation of Black people, how Truth and Douglas shaped and used their own images for everything from funding their own activism to challenging racist ideas about Black people.

A new essay by John Stauffer, a professor of English and African and African-American Studies at Harvard, goes deeper into Douglass’ love of photography, and how he grasped very early how powerful a political tool it was.  Staufer writes:

Douglass was in love with photography. He wrote more extensively on the medium than any peer. He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. He became the most photographed American in the 19th century.

Douglass would have been a savvy social media devotee, as he continually updated his public persona. By doing so, he was defying the static foundations of both slavery and racism, which are predicated on the idea that some people of a certain race are somehow immutably inferior to others. Douglass’ fluid conception of the self united art and politics. He went so far as to say that “the moral and social influence of pictures” was more important in shaping national culture than “the making of its laws.”

The full essay is here.