The Matter of Black Lives: Writing the Biography of Frederick Douglass and His Family

Frederick Douglass and family

American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

What is family? How does it lend itself to the writing of biography? What particular challenges does the writing of family biography present when the family in question is African American? Finally, how might the task change as we move from the Obama Years into the Trump Years in our national history? These are some of the core questions that underlie this talk, which explores the life stories of various members of the Bailey-Douglass family of Talbot County, Maryland, over an era spanning slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow—before emerging, as a biographer might say, into history.


Ezra Greenspan is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Chair in Humanities and professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He is a literary and cultural historian who studies the history of print culture in its various manifestations in the United States. Dr. Greenspan is interested, in particular, in the central activities (such as writing, reading, printing, and publishing) and institutions (such as libraries, bookstores, and schools) of American print culture. Among his many publications are: George Palmer Putnam: Representative American Publisher (Penn State Press, 2000), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition (Routledge Press, 2004), William Wells Brown: A Reader (University of Georgia Press, 2008), William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton Co., 2014), and Walt Whitman and the American Reader (Cambridge University Press, 1990). He is the co-editor of the journal Book History, the annual journal of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP). Greenspan was elected to AAS membership in 2003 and is currently in residence at the Society as an AAS-NEH Fellow.