Blight Shares Insight at Weeden Lecture

News  /  by Eden Fesseha '19  /  October 06, 2017

Courtesy of The Lawrenceville School

This past Monday evening, David Blight, the Yale University Class of 1954 Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, gave the annual Weeden Lecture in the Kirby Arts Center. Blight lectured on Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist who is best known for his narrative “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass,” which Blight himself has compiled and edited.

An author of several books on the topic of slavery including “A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Own Narratives of Emancipation,” Blight is a scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Before his speech Monday evening, The Lawrence sat down with Blight for an interview. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Eden Fesseha ’19: Can you tell me a little bit about the topic of your speech this evening?

David Blight: I’m going to be talking about the life and writings of Frederick Douglass, the most famous African-American former slave and writer and orator of the 19th century, and I’m going to particularly focus on his autobiography because a lot of the [IV Formers] have been reading his autobiography, and I’ve just completed a new full biography of his life. I’ll also talk some about how I conceived the biography. It’s all about Frederick Douglass tonight!

EF: In your opinion, what effects did the Civil War have that are still relevant today?

DB: Well, we live today in the midst of—whether we’re conscious of it or not—legacies of the Civil War every day, all day every day. And you’ve seen of it late with the ubiquitous arguments over Confederate monuments, […] but we really live in two great legacies of the Civil War. One has everything to do with race and race relations and whether we can truly be a country that lives under the Fourteenth Amendment. And the other legacy we still live under is this question of Federalism and the relationship of the states to the federal government. But, as I’ve said many times, as long as America has a politics of race—which it does—we're going to have a politics of the Civil War legacies and Civil War memory because it was fought over the presence of racial slavery. [The war’s] greatest single result was the destruction of [...] slavery and its longest consequences have to do with how we have processed and adjudicated that transformation.

The legacies of the Civil War are all around us whether we’re entirely conscious of it or not. Sometimes the legacies are in stone or monuments, sometimes they’re in law, sometimes they’re in practices, and sometimes they’re in ideas. It’s never quite over.

EF: How do you feel America can learn from its past?

DB: Often we don’t learn from history, but we do sometimes. It’s kind of old fashioned. We learn from history by reading it; we learn a lot of history through museum exhibitions. More people go to museums than actually read books—I’m not happy about that. There’s a tremendous degree of public history through museums and historical sights, which are one primary way that people gain a sense of the past. But you first have to have the will to do it. I hate to keep on bringing up Trump, but I can’t help it. There’s been a great deal of talk—and I’ve done it myself—about Trump’s ignorance of history. He thought Frederick Douglass was still alive!

The thing to remember [is] that the root word of the word ignorance is the word ‘ignore,’ and many ignorant people are that way by choice. They have chosen to ignore the past. The ignorant person in this society is very often willfully ignorant. That’s frightening. You learn from the past in two ways. You either read or you live it. When you’re young, you haven’t lived much yet, so you read it and experience it in museums. As you get older, you live it, but then you can’t really trust your memory. You know, I go back to the Vietnam War, but that doesn’t mean I should trust my memory of it. I should be reading about it.