Commonplace Book #168

All great autobiography is about loss, about the hopeless but necessary quest to retrieve and control a past that forever slips away. Memory is both inspiration and burden, method and subject, the thing one cannot live with or without. [Abolitionist James McCune] Smith grasped just how true this was for a former slave who seized literacy. Douglass’s past was a dangerous place to go, but as he returned to it over and over, he made memory into art, brilliantly and mischievously employing its authority, its elusiveness, its truths, and its charms. Douglass’s memory was fraught with conflicted images; sometimes he flattened them out to control his tale of self-made ascension, but other times he just described the brutal contrasts and reached for truth. He often hid as much as he revealed, especially about his family and personal life. But what he did reveal in Bondage and Freedom is one man’s deeply personal indictment of the past and present of his country, and a risky, bold vision of a different future.

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 259-260.