Barry Moser Illustrates Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition…. I would pour out my soul’s complaint…— ‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly!’”
    –Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Published on May 1, 1845 in Boston by the Antislavery Office founded by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself” sold 5,000 copies within four months. By 1847, this first of three autobiographies to be written by the famed escaped slave-turned-orator had gone through nine editions, and by 1860 — a year before the outbreak of the Civil War —30,000 copies were in print, robust statistics for any book in antebellum America, while translations in German and French secured an international readership for its central message — a clarion call against the pestilence of slavery that infected the American South.

“Narrative” spoke eloquently on behalf of the millions of people of African heritage then living in bondage in the United States, illuminating slavery’s horrors and giving voice to the powerless. The slim, 125-page volume chronicling Douglass’s twenty years of enslavement in Maryland is considered a preeminent example of slave narratives, and after 175 years, it shows no signs of irrelevance or obscurity; in fact, a fine press edition has been illustrated by award winning Massachusetts-based artist Barry Moser, who describes himself as “a recovering racist.”         

Drowning Man. Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser

Moser grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised as the nephew and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members. After preaching his way through college as a licensed Methodist minister, he settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, where for 50 years he has turned out award-winning art and taught at the surrounding colleges. His illustrations for “Narrative”offer his ruminations on race inequality in the United States and the burden of racism he and many Americans continue to shoulder. “White Europeans have an awful lot to answer for on this continent,” he told me, while Douglass’s flowing autobiography lends itself perfectly to the interpretative work Moser is known for creating.

“‘Narrative’ penetrates over, and over, and over into the mental, physical, and psychological world of growing up a slave,” is how the Yale professor David Blight, whose biography of Douglass was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, said to me in an interview. “He was twenty years a slave, and those twenty years are all represented in that first book. He doesn’t tell us how he escaped until his third autobiography, but this book is Douglass’s great coming out as a writer.”

Before setting his reminiscences down on paper, Douglass shared them in lectures promoting the abolitionist cause throughout the North on a circuit that stretched to Indiana, though many were not receptive to the idea of racial equality; even in Massachusetts, his home state for a decade, he and a colleague were once beaten and thrown from a train for disobeying the rules of segregated seating. But the 26-year-old orator continued to captivate crowds, and during one 18-week period of repose, he wrote his story — a “book of the ages” as Blight calls it.  

Over the course of multiple, wide-ranging interviews, Moser told me the idea for this project came after he started seeing a psychiatrist about four years ago, where recurring topics centered on race, religion, and Moser’s older brother, Tommy. Moser chronicled his upbringing in a 2016 memoir, “We Were Brothers,” laying bare a childhood lived among dyed-in-the-wool racists and his strained relationship with Tommy. Though Moser fled the South over fifty years ago, he still wrestles with family ghosts. He said that breathing contemporary meaning into a nearly 200-year-old text had helped him atone, in part, for the sins of his family while confronting uncomfortable truths through his art.

“The idea to do the book grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me loose,” he said, describing his illustrations as “a personal meditation on what I’ve known and what I’ve seen.” And still, “to this day, I refer to myself as a recovering racist,” Moser said, pausing briefly. “I am gripped by white guilt.” He traces his decision to leave the region of his birth to one particular night when he was sixteen years old and members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded near his home in a “Klavalcade” that openly expressed their credo of hate. “My family’s out there on the front porch laughing and talking like the Klansmen were family,” he noted. “That night began my awakening. It haunts me.”

Just as Douglass wrote “Narrative” in less than a year, Moser turned out these images over the course of twelve months, a project as challenging, if not more so, than his illustrated edition of the King James Bible, a four-year endeavor not undertaken by any single artist since Gustave Doré in 1865.           

As works of art, the sixty copies printed and bound at the Palace of the Governor’s for Moser’s Pennyroyal Press edition of “Narrative” are exceptional: master craftsman tooled the bindings and marbled the endpapers, while the text and engravings appear on German mold-made paper and sheets imported from a nearly 300-year-old English paper mill. Until the entire series sold out in mid-March 2020, copies were available through the New Mexico Museum for $675 apiece. Ten copies were pressed and left in sheets for artisan book binders to purchase and bind as they see fit.

Photo: Margot Geist. Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser.

For inspiration, Moser looked to chain gangs, mass incarceration, lynchings, and his own family; Moser’s grandfather appears stone-faced in one illustration holding a whip while a bloodied woman hangs from a post in the background. Under every image in “Narrative”is a violent ink-black brush stroke — the lash of a whip.

Burning Cross from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser.

Before and throughout the project, Moser sought guidance and corresponded almost daily with Debra Riffe, a longtime friend and Black printmaker based in Birmingham, Alabama.  “She was my confessor,” said Moser. “We talked to each other about race, and I wanted to make damn sure that what I was doing would not be offensive to a Black American without diluting my emotions.”

As one might expect, the very premise of the endeavor — a white artist ruminating on slavery and its aftermath — generates conflicted responses. As to whether a Black artist would have been more appropriate to take on such a task, Riffe said that Moser approached the project with great sensitivity. “I felt he nailed the illustrations. Could someone else have done a better job? If so, why hadn’t they done it? It’s Barry’s point of view. I applaud Barry for trying.”   

Theo Tyson, the Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art and Culture at the Boston Athenæum and previously the manager of Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art, offered her belief that the undertaking “reeks of white privilege,” and that “an African American artist with at least ancestral memory of slavery would have been a better choice to ‘tackle’ this project.”  

Moser, for his part, asserts that he is not purporting to speak for Douglass but is sharing his experiences and thoughts alongside the author, through art. Douglass was, as Blight put it, a “magical” writer. “People get captured by ‘Narrative’ because it possesses universal qualities,” Blight said. “This is a young mind and body held captive. A lot of people around the world, in one way or another, are held captive, or believe they are. People read this book in India or Africa or Asia and find their own stories in it.”

Moser hopes his art will speak to those readers, too. “I don’t have a big voice to speak with. But I do have one, and by God I’m going to speak in the language that I speak best, and that’s with images.”