Smash Pages Q&A: David F. Walker on ‘The Life of Frederick Douglass’

The writer of ‘Bitter Root,’ ‘Cyborg’ and ‘Nighthawk’ discusses his work on one of America’s historic figures.

David F. Walker has been writing comics and prose for years. He really broke out when he wrote a novel and two comics miniseries featuring John Shaft, the classic character created by Ernest Tidyman. Since then he’s written for DC (Cyborg, the upcoming Naomi), Marvel (Nighthawk, Luke Cage) and Lion Forge (Superb). Currently he’s co-writing the series Bitter Root, the third issue of which comes out this week.

Also on sale this week is The Life of Frederick Douglass. The graphic novel from Ten Speed Press, which Walker wrote, features art by Damon Smyth and colors by Marissa Louise. The book tells the story of one of the nation’s great figures and his uniquely American story. It’s a very impressive graphic biography, and I would argue that it’s Walker’s best work to date. We spoke about why this was such a personal project for him and what Douglass’ life and work say about the United States and all of its citizens.

How did you end up writing a graphic biography of Frederick Douglass?

It was pretty simple actually. Patrick Barb sent me an e-mail. I’d never met him before. He said he was a fan of my work and that Ten Speed was interested in working with me and they were thinking about making a book on the life of Frederick Douglass. It had never occurred to me to do a graphic novel about the life of Frederick Douglass, but the moment I read that e-mail, this light went off. We started conversing. I put together a formal proposal. I make it sound like it was that simple and in very broad strokes it was that simple. Ten Speed approached me, asked me if I’d be interested, and I jumped on the opportunity – because of that key word, opportunity. I’d thought many times about doing nonfiction graphic novels but Frederick Douglass in particular was not in my immediate field of view. He wasn’t someone I was thinking about. In hindsight, I don’t know that I could have picked a more challenging first nonfiction book to do. [laughs]

So it was very easy – except for the work of actually writing it.

Exactly. [laughs]

You have two big challenges with this book, and you mention this in the introduction. One is that Douglass is this mythic figure. But also, so many important details of his life were unrecorded and are unknown.

That was really interesting to me because you realize how much of history is unrecorded. How much isn’t written down. Then you start to wonder why. That opens up a whole field of research that isn’t ever going to go into your book. One of the things I was fascinated with while working on this project was there was so little written about his wife. They were married for over forty years and everybody knows who his wife was, but no one knows how they met. No one knows about her day to day existence. Why is there so little about her? You begin to understand the norms of the era and how women were treated and how they were written about in both autobiographical and biographical contexts. It was considered unseemly for a man to write about his wife and to talk about his wife. That was fascinating.

Douglass wrote a lot and people may have read his Autobiographies, and a lot has been written about him, but we don’t have the letters or diaries from him and his wife that we do from other people.

Douglass burned a ton of stuff on a couple of occasions. A ton of stuff was burned after John Brown was caught during the Raid on Harpers Ferry because of the fear that Douglass would be implicated in the raid. He allegedly had at least one long term affair. A lot of that is speculation, but one book I read said a lot of those papers were burned as well. In some regards he wasn’t about leaving a trail. He had two newspapers and the offices of one of them were torched and all that was lost. Now and it’s difficult to lose our records these days because they’re everywhere. [laughs] Fortunately research is my favorite form of procrastination. If anything the book took longer than it should have because as I was researching Harriet Tubman and how they met, the next thing you know, I’m reading an entire book about Harriet Tubman. I would fall down these rabbit holes and then two days later realize, I didn’t need to read these 300 pages about Tubman or John Brown or you name it. [laughs] There are a lot of books that I dove into that I didn’t need to.

There are a lot of ways to write a biography and you chose to cover Douglass’ life from birth to death. Why?

That’s a really good question and it was a difficult decision. I’m not the biggest fan of those birth to death biographical projects. Especially in film, I can’t stand them. The main reason I did it – and I want to be very careful that I don’t come across sounding arrogant or pompous – was this concern that this might be the only book someone reads about Frederick Douglass. I thought about myself at 13 years old and if I had to do an assignment for my U.S. History class. I would be the kid who picks up the graphic novel. I grappled with that for a long time. I felt that there were five or six key moments in his life that I could build an entire book around. Then I thought, there’s so much historical illiteracy right now and again I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but I felt like there was a certain responsibility. I wanted to do an entire book just on John Brown and Frederick Douglass’ relationship. But I felt like there are so many people who really don’t know that much about him. It was not a decision that I made lightly, but I felt that it was really important. There’s those breakout sections about slavery and the Civil War in the book because I felt like to talk about Douglass and his life and to talk about slavery but not give some semblance of an explanation of slavery, without giving some semblance of explanation about the Civil War, then you’re doing a disservice. It’s better to repeat something that somebody already knows than to omit something that they don’t know. U.S. history – especially the way it’s taught in this country – is a history of omission in a lot of ways. We’re taught more about the lost cause notion of the Civil War than the real truth of the Civil War. Plus I wanted to make enemies. [laughs] I wanted to irritate people who are still pounding on their chests going, it was about states rights! Yes, it is was. It was about the state’s rights to have slaves.

I can understand why it would be easier in a lot of ways to write about a series of events, but doing it this way you convey how Douglass changed. For example, that he had to be convinced to speak out, that he felt he had nothing to add, that he felt he was a horrible speaker, and then felt compelled to speak finally.

The funny thing is I’m still reading about Frederick Douglass and I stumbled across a letter that he had written talking about how ugly he felt he was. Yet every picture you see of him is this striking handsome man who’s projecting this air of confidence. But that’s the thing, Frederick Douglass was a human being. It’s the same thing with Abraham Lincoln. I learned so much about Lincoln during this process too. There were a couple books I read specifically about the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, which is incredibly complex for two men who were only in the same room together three times in their lives. Lincoln wasn’t the perfect man that we think of either. I think that’s the interesting thing about history. These men and women have all reached this mythic level, but they were all human beings. They were all flawed. They all had their issues. Susan B. Anthony, who is this incredibly iconic figure, was kind of racist. And not just her, a lot of the suffragists were incredibly racist. We see these sepia photos where everyone’s looking very proper and distinguished, but no. They had problems just like the rest of us. I was hoping to get some of that through in the book because I felt like the last thing we needed right now is more of the mythic iconic black superhero. We need more humanity. Douglass’ whole life was spent trying to restore humanity and I felt like if nothing else, that’s what I have to do with this book.

I kept thinking about all the setbacks that Douglass faced. Yes, slavery ended, but before and after was one setback after another from the Runaway Slave Act, Andrew Johnson, the split between the abolitionist and suffrage movements, the fact that Douglass and that generation never lived to see women’s suffrage.

Even the end of slavery was met with the total failure of Reconstruction. It’s not a partial failure. Yes, there’s freedom, but it’s not absolute freedom. The ultimate slap in the face is the way that history has been rewritten. First off, there’s a lot of people who don’t even know what Reconstruction is. But the acceptance of the Los Cause narrative is the ultimate monument to the defeat of Reconstruction. It’s the ultimate proof that if the North won the Civil War, they didn’t really win. They won with a really big asterisk. Yes they won, but we have all these laws in place that limit the mobility of black folks. They have limited rights. We have the birth of the prison-industrial complex.

That’s another graphic novel. Ida B. Wells and her work and the anti-lynching movement – that’s another story there. I would love to see more books like this coming out. I’m not going to be the one to write them all, but I keep telling people, I have a collection of books on Ida B. Wells now. I don’t know if I’ll be the person to write it, but somebody’s got to write it and somebody’s got to publish it. I think the graphic novel is such a great medium. I love prose books but not everybody has time to jump into an 800 page really dense book. First you have to spark that interest and when I was a kid I read Classic Illustrated and comics of that ilk. That’s what got me interested in not just reading but also writing.

One of the things you try to do in this book is talk about slavery, about the brutality of it, the mindset it tried to instill in people. But also how Douglass never knew who his father was, though everyone assumed that it was the man who owned his mother – including the man’s family. Showing how we’ve always had this interracial America, from the beginning, but it’s unacknowledged.

It is unacknowledged. Before I started this Frederick Douglass project I was obsessed with genealogy and family history and the bigger history of the U.S. and slavery. The thing I discovered time and time again was that there was a relative of mine who was a slave and their father was inevitably a white man and their mother was this anonymous or sometimes not anonymous woman. If you go on ancestry.com you see these white men who in their family trees have multiple wives. No. No. Here’s an example of how we continue to perpetuate some of these myths. My third great grandmother was not married to my third great grandfather. She was his property. She had a son. I don’t know how many other kids she had by him, but I do know that she was sold to another plantation. My second great grandfather Nelson Hancock never really knew his mother, the same way Frederick Douglass never really knew his mother. My great great grandfather Nelson Hancock was the by product of this, do I say rape? Is that too strong of a word? I don’t think it is. His story is very much like Frederick Douglass’ story. When I looked through my whole family tree I see all these people who have very similar stories.

This is the American story. It’s not just black America, it’s white America, too. Last year I gave a TEDx Talk about genealogy and I had these slides and I showed one branch of my family and said, the father was a slaveowner and the mother was a slave. I showed how far back I could trace the history of the slaveowner. During the break this white man in his sixties walked up to me and said, we’re related. We started talking and started comparing notes. It wasn’t me going, how dare you walk up to me because you’re the descendant of slaveowners. I can’t be angry at you personally. In this country there’s this attitude especially among a lot of white folks who will say things like, I didn’t own slaves or my family didn’t own slaves. Well, your family may not have owned slaves but they benefitted from slavery. Every family in this country benefitted from it. I can only speak for myself, but I’m not looking to punish any white person for slavery. I am looking to help educate and liberate this country from these – no pun intended – shackles of ignorance and indifference to the reality. The reality is most black folks who are the descendants of slaves in America have some European ancestry in them because that was the reality of slavery. Every white person whose family goes back to before slavery benefitted from slavery. The economics of this country was built on slavery.

You live in Oregon, which has a very complicated racial history.

Oh yeah. I’m originally an East Coast kid, but I happen to live in arguably the most racist state. The only state that had segregation written into the constitution. I tell people that and they’ve lived in Oregon all their lives and they’re like, what? This was meant to be the white utopia.

In a different vein, you’re co-writing a comic series Bitter Root, which is a historical fantasy.

Bitter Root is tied into history in a very loose way, I think. Sanford and Chuck, my creative partners, might feel it’s more tight. It’s history that black people have forgotten about. This will be the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919. There’s going to be an issue of Bitter Root that deals with the Red Summer. We should be remembering the entire summer of 1919 – which wasn’t just a summer. It extended a very long time. I think that Bitter Root is an exploration of what Frederick Douglass also was, which is this love of history. This philosophy that to learn about these things becomes a great gift. To learn about history, no matter how ugly it might be, is this gift.

I just love history and what Bitter Root and Frederick Douglass have brought together for me is my incredible love of two things, the medium of comics and a historical background. It gives me an excuse to do research, which as I said before is my favorite form of procrastination. But it helps me to open doors within myself and maybe other people too. To me, the back matter in the back of Bitter Root which John Jennings is curating is the best part of the comic. I love seeing the work that Sanford does I love seeing the coloring, but when John turns in the back matter I read it and that is what makes me feel good. The back matter for #3 which comes out soon is going to blow people away. It’s cool. And Bitter Root is helping me exorcise my own demons and since it’s about demon hunters, I guess that’s very appropriate. [laughs]

It sounds like you want to write more nonfiction and more historical fiction going forward.

Yes. I’m in the process of negotiating a couple deals right now for more nonfiction work. It takes its toll on you, though. I can’t speak for anybody else but when I finished writing the original script I was in a really bad place mentally and emotionally. I spent nearly a year researching and writing the life of a former slave and really immersing myself and digging deeper than a lot of people might have dug. You don’t come out of that unscathed. So I understand why some people never want to do this. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to face this stuff. Ultimately I feel I came out of it better, but I was in a dark place for a while.

To bring it back to Frederick Douglass, on the last page of the book, you dedicate it to a list of people. Could you talk about that dedication and those names?

Those are the names of all of my second and third and fourth great-grandparents. Specifically, the ones who were slaves. Nelson Hancock, who’s my second great-grandfather, and his mother are in there, but his father’s not in there. Because his father was a slave owner. It’s not that I don’t want him to be remembered or to be known, but I’m very clear that when I talk about my family history, we’re going to talk about those who were enslaved as opposed to those who were the slave owners. I have to reconcile that because as I talk about the evils of slavery, and the evils of slave ownership, the blood of slave owners runs through my body. I am the descendant of both. It was really important to me that I put those names out there. The moment I discovered these relatives of mine, it was like, I began to realize how incomplete I was as a person.

My theory is that most of us are incomplete as people. Part of that incompleteness is that we don’t know who we are or where we came from. Or we don’t want to talk about it for some reason. My grandparents didn’t want to talk about growing up in Jim Crow South. My grandparents’ grandparents were slaves and they didn’t want to talk about that. I understand why they didn’t want to talk about it, but in that not wanting to talk about it, a lot of history was lost. And when history is lost, identity is lost. And when identity is lost, then we create identity. That creation of identity is what we see when people are talking about the confederacy with pride. How it’s about pride and culture and heritage. No, it’s about slavery. But your great-grandfather didn’t talk about the fact that he owned slaves and raped women and that you actually have cousins out there who are of partially African descent. I don’t ever want to forget these folks who are my relatives. I have a hell of a lot more freedom than those folks I dedicated the book to. They need to be real people. And again, that was one of Frederick Douglass’ many goals, to restore that humanity to individuals who were denied it. Simply because of the way records were kept, so many of us are never going to be complete. But I’ll never forget the first time I saw a picture of my great-great-grandfather Nelson Hancock. Here’s a guy born in the 1850’s, He was born more than 120 years before I was. And I can see the family resemblance. I didn’t realize I was missing something. It’s like people who have kids, the moment their baby’s born and they realize that becoming a parent will make them feel a level of complete they didn’t know they needed. I almost started to cry.

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