“the beautiful, needful thing”: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday, when peaceful protestors in Selma, Alabama marching for civil rights were brutally attacked by state troopers.

In honor of this anniversary, I suggest reading Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass,” a powerful poem by one the twentieth century’s best American poets. Robert Hayden’s most anthologized poem is probably “Those Winter Sundays” (which I wrote about here). He was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—or, what is now known as Poet Laureate—the first African American poet to hold the post.

Recommended Reading, Classics Club Edition: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

This slim volume, published in 1845, was one that I should have read years ago. Sure, I’ve Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassread excerpts from time to time, but really, at 106 pages, this should be required reading in high school American lit classes. It’s powerful, not only for its depictions of the myriad cruelties of slavery, but also for Douglass’s tour de force rhetorical performance.

I think it’s also important to find the right edition of this text (I read an Oxford University Press edition), since context is so important to the narrative. I found the introduction, chronology, and background notes especially helpful when I’m reading autobiography — which is, no matter how truthful, always a literary production, with an intended audience and an agenda.

In this case, for example, it was helpful to learn from the notes that while Frederick Douglass was noted later in life for his support of women’s suffrage, black women are nearly voiceless in his narrative. For example, his fiancee (and later wife), Anna Murray, helped him to escape, but he doesn’t credit her at all in the Narrative. And that, I think, is because the rhetorical strategy Douglass deploys is one that insists on his independence, which is signaled from the book’s original title and authorial designation: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, Written by Himself.

It’s shocking just how much Douglass overcame to reach a free state, and the Narrative is often difficult to read due to the many scenes of brutality. It’s impassioned, frank, and blistering in its indictment of slaveholders. It’s a must-read.