David Blight lectures on Frederick Douglass’ legacy

Kendra Smaby – Staff Writer

On Monday April 11, members of our campus community and the surrounding community were privileged enough to hear esteemed historian and the Sterling Professor of History, Professor of African American Studies, and of American Studies and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, Dr. David Blight speak on The Legacies of Frederick Douglass in our own Time. This lecture marked the inauguration of a new lecture series endowed by Gustavus Alumni and renowned Civil War Historian James McPherson. The lecture series has interdisciplinary funding as it is supported by The James and Patricia McPherson Endowed Professor of American History, the Bernhardson Distinguished Chair of Lutheran Studies, the Provost’s Office, Lecture Series, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Office of the Chaplains, African Studies and the Departments of Communication Studies, English, History, Political Science, and Religion. As well as Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies. Our very own Professor Kaster introduced Dr. Blight and thanked the above mentioned departments and President Becky Bergman and Provost Brenda Kelly for their unwavering support of the humanities at Gustavus.
Blight has many accolades and has worked with the Obamas through their film company, however, he first introduced himself as a self-proclaimed “Detroit Tigers fan FOR LIFE.” He is the author of the book Race and Reunion which won the Bancroft, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass awards. He is also the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”, available to Gustavus Students for purchase at the Bookmark and the focus of his lecture. Prior to becoming a renowned professor and author, Blight was a high school teacher and emphasizes his commitment to the education of his pupils stating that he is a teacher first in his Twitter bio.
Upon taking the stage, Blight expressed how honored he was by being asked to speak, especially at a lecture in honor of the Dr. “Jim” McPherson. He spoke to McPhearson’s prowess in the field of Civil War History, remarking that at many conferences, “we would wonder what did Jim think, and then we just agreed [with him].” He also thanked Dr. Kaster for making the whole thing happen after two years of planning and a worldwide pandemic.
Blight began the body of the lecture with a witty joke, remarking that he “was raised Lutheran and [is] still recovering,” building a witty rapport with the crowd and earning some laughs. He then went on to introduce a Bible verse, Genesis 8:11, “When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.” He assured the audience that he would come back to this quote at the end of the lecture.

“When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth… ”

At this point he addressed his inspiration for the book, an “extraordinary collection of Douglass Material” curated by retired Surgeon Walter Evans. This material contained information that focused on the latter half of Douglass’ life, a piece that was on the whole missing from the literature on Douglass. Blight then explained how he boiled the life and extraordinary mind of Frederick Douglass down into six themes: Words, The Douglass autobiographies, The Bible, his transition from being a radical outsider to a political insider, balancing his public and private lives, and Douglass the artist, the intellectual and the creative mind.
At the end, Blight brought the audience back to Genesis 8:11, explaining that Douglass had used this verse in two of his most influential speeches and gone as far as to claim “I am. The Dove.”
The floor was then opened for questions discussing wedge politics and the lost cause narrative from both the community and students alike. Blight left his audience with a profound thought, conjecturing that “in some ways the Civil War is never quite over in this country, and reconstruction surely never will be. As long as we debate federalism, the relationship with the states of the federal government, as long as we are debating what race means in this country and where it belongs in law or doesn’t belong in law and why racism continues to revive no matter what, the civil war’s not quite over.”

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