RANGELY I As he spoke, there were moments I forgot he wasn’t Civil War-era abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
It shouldn’t have been hard to remember. The modern-day camera resting comfortably in my hands, the iPhone app recording his words should have been reminder enough. There were anachronisms, too, like the wireless microphone he held and the occasional swig he took from a plastic water bottle.
Still, I had to tell myself three or four times this man had not transcended time and mortality to deliver a message that seemed both instantly relevant and timeless.
In Boulder, Colo., I’d grown up exploring the dips and inclines of the city’s Chautauqua Park. Until a couple of weeks ago, however, I’d given only passing thought to Chautauqua as performance art, let alone the tradition scholar Charles Everett Pace adhered to in depicting Douglass at Colorado Northwestern Community College on Feb. 24.
From the latter part of the 19th century through the 1930s, the Chautauqua format brought cultural experiences and entertainment to small rural communities, mostly through theater, lectures and concerts.
During the Black History Live Tour, however, Pace operated under one of the term’s more current uses, as described on the sponsoring Colorado Humanities website: “humanities scholars…take to the stage and breathe life into the words of historical and literary figures through interpretive characterizations.”
It wasn’t until after Pace’s stellar 40-minute overview—more like channeling—of Douglass’ life as a slave, military organizer, presidential confidant and activist that I better understood just what goes into this effort.
Most modern-day Chautauquans not only study the historical figure they portray for well over a year, poring over biographies, journals and letters and delving into secondary research to prepare for their roles. They do it until they begin to know the individual as a congruent part of themselves. Chautauqua scholar-actors appropriate, as nearly as one can decades or centuries after a person has lived, that person’s life as part of their own.
During the question and answer session in which Pace spoke about his characterizations of Douglass, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and others, he explained:
“Each one allows me to express a part of myself. If I want to deal with my acting ability of histrionics, it’s Douglass, because that’s who he was as a person. If I want to deal with the poetic side of me and dreams … I do Langston Hughes. If I want to do the adventurous, exploring part of me, York (a slave who traveled with the Lewis and Clark Expedition) expresses that part of me.
“It’s not history. It’s not biography. It’s autobiography.”
Perhaps that’s why my first experience with contemporary Chautauqua was so powerful. As Charles Everett Pace became, in some sense, Frederick Douglass, the audience connected in a direct, visceral way to what Douglass helped accomplish: in rejecting any compromise of truth and justice, he reshaped cultural mores and made possible the rebirth of a nation.
The experience illumined truth for me in ways that only performance art can. I was convicted by Douglass’ words in ways I wasn’t while reading him as an undergraduate. Some of that is almost certainly my own worldview then compared to now. Some of it, though, is simply the power of this art form.
Though snippets hardly suffice and lack the power of being in the audience, I’m compelled to share a few takeaways and encourage readers to engage with this kind of learning whenever they can:
On empowerment: Following an all-out brawl with plantation overseer Edward Covey, slave Frederick Douglass recalls that “I was not afraid to fight back, and this spirit made me a free man; in fact, though I remained a slave in form.”
On being a voice of opposition for a just cause: “As long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up this country to the righteous indignation of moral scorn, and, in so doing, I will feel myself discharging the true duties of a patriot … (He is) a true lover of his native land who rebukes and does not excuse its crimes.”
On the power of words: “There’s one thing you understand about tyranny and oppression: it loves the darkness, but it hates the light. As a speaker, as a publisher, as an editor, I could bring the light about what the reality of the situation was.”
On our common humanity (from scholar Charles Everett Pace): “Ultimately, you’ve gotta make it personal. And challenge anybody who attempts to take away the humanity of another person. Get in their face.”
Some days, I am anything but bold. But words like these, expressed in this way, make me feel brave. That seems to be the power of Chautauqua: to convey universal human truths in interactive, personal ways. To push us to explore our beliefs and biases. And to apply what we learn not only to reshape ourselves but to better our common experience.
Thanks, Colorado Humanities, Charles Everett Pace and CNCC for what you had to teach us—and for reminding us we needed it.