By Blake Maddux
“You can read Frederick Douglass forever and still just encounter new things, new ideas, new passages, new phrases. He’s that kind of writer. It’s like reading Emerson or even Shakespeare.”
You don’t expect book awards,” said historian David W. Blight from his office at Yale University about having won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History along with seven other awards for his volume Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. “You’re just sort of delighted to get the book finished!”
Perhaps this was Blight’s Midwestern modesty at work. As he stated later in the interview, “I had won something like eight awards [it appears to have actually been six] for my book Race and Reunion back in 2002.” Moreover, the fact that he won a Connecticut Book Award in 2008 and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 never came up.
Blight’s path to professorships at Harvard, Amherst, and Yale did not lead him through the rarefied air of similarly vaunted institutes of higher learning. Having become enchanted with the Civil War in his teens by the books of fellow Wolverine State native Bruce Catton, Blight graduated from Michigan State University with the intent of teaching high school-level history. During his seven years of doing so in his hometown of Flint, he earned his master’s “one course at a time” via evening classes at MSU. It wasn’t until nine years later – in 1985 – that the University of Wisconsin-Madison would bestow a PhD on him.
The Arts Fuse: Were you interested in history as a child or did your interest develop later?
David Blight: It did come from childhood, especially by my teenage years and certainly in high school. I had a hankering for the storytelling of history. I had two good high school history teachers. That certainly had a lot of impact. As soon as I had thoughts about whatever I wanted to do, I really just wanted to become a history teacher, and that is what I did.
AF: When did you first read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and how did it affect you?
DB: That’s a great question, ’cause I don’t even remember now. I’ve been working on him most of my life. I don’t think I read it in college, honestly. I don’t think I started reading it until I was a high school teacher, but I’m not sure of that. We might have read part of it when I was in college, ’cause I took the first-ever black history course, taught at Michigan State in either ’68 or ’69. But I did start reading him when I was a high school teacher in the ’70s, and then when I went to graduate school I started working on Douglass carefully.
AF: Did you learn anything in researching Prophet of Freedom that was a surprise to you?
DB: Oh, lots of things. I did the book because of encountering a private collection of Douglass manuscripts and documents owned by a man name Walter Evans, who lives in Savannah, GA. Lots of things surprised me about the granular details of his family life, the details of his constant lecture touring all over the country, and his sheer endurance of all kinds of elements of racism. And I am always and continually surprised by Douglass’s incredible talent with language, with prose, with words. You can read Douglass forever and still just encounter new things, new ideas, new passages, new phrases. He’s that kind of writer. It’s like reading Emerson or even Shakespeare.
AF: Where were you and what were you doing when you learned that you had won the Pulitzer?
DB: Well, it’s a crazy story. I was giving a book talk in New York City, believe it or not, at Salomon Brothers, the big investment firm and bank. They have a lecture series every two weeks or something, and I was scheduled on that day a month ahead to go give a talk in their auditorium. I did know that that was the day they were announcing it, but I did my utmost to not think about it. So I was literally sitting in sort of a green room space waiting to go on to give this book talk, and the people at Salomon Brothers were following it online. They came in the room practically yelling that I had won. Then I got a call from my agent and a phone call from my editor. I don’t even remember when I got a phone call from the Pulitzer people because it’s those first calls that I remember. And that evening I had to give another book talk. I had two talks that day to give, so it was good to be busy! (laughs)
The Pulitzer Prize luncheon that they do once a year at Columbia University is one of the most remarkable events I’ve ever attended. Not just because I was so privileged to get a prize, but because at least two-thirds of the awards go to journalism of some kind, it was like a giant pep rally for the free press. In this moment of, you know, the gangster presidency — the free press got to have its pep rally. It was really something to see.
AF: Speaking of the “gangster presidency,” how did you respond when Donald Trump said, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice” in 2017?
DB: A little bit of disgust and then I just laughed. That was way back when his absurdities were such minor things, as opposed to now – he’s gonna build a wall in Colorado on our border. I mean, his combination of ignorance and venality has been unmatched in our history. But that was quite a peculiar day. Believe it or not, I was literally teaching Douglass’s Narrative that very week in my lecture course and that happened, I think, on a Wednesday and the next day I put an image up on the screen of Douglass in his coffin. It’s one of those death photos they did in the 19th century. I just flashed it up on the screen and announced to the class, “I’m very sorry to let you know this, but he actually is dead.” And about half the class started laughing, and the other half, it was as though they weren’t sure what this was about. (laughs) They got it very quickly, I think.
But somebody on the staff handed that line to him, and I’ve always wondered who advised him to say that. Maybe he made it up, I don’t know.
AF: What can you say at this point about the feature film that Netflix has optioned the book for?
DB: It has been optioned by the Obamas’ film company, which is called Higher Ground. Barack and Michelle Obama have the deal with Netflix. So yes, it’s been optioned for a feature film. The screenwriter has been hired and he’s hard at work. His name is Kevin Willmott [co-winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman]. That’s as far as the process had gone, but I’ve worked with Kevin now pretty closely. We’ve met a couple of times, we email. So I’m hopeful. I mean, you never know with the movie business. Lots of films get written into screenplays but they never get made. It’s still at the screenwriting stage, so there’s no director yet, there’s no production schedule yet. But they have an 18-month option to get a screenplay written and adapted.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.