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Noel Ingatiev was a lifelong activist and writer.

Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and the Virtues of Impracticality

In a lengthy review in the New Yorker of David W. Blight’s recent book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,1 Adam Gopnik calls Douglass “the progenitor of the ‘pragmatic-progressive’ strain in American thought that led to Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.”2 Douglass is an attractive figure, and it is easy to understand why he fills the need of American mainstream thought for a Black political hero now that George Washington Carver (the one Black figure in the textbooks when I went to grade school) no longer serves. But the notion of “pragmatic progressive” suggests an alternative tradition, which we might call “impractical revolutionary.” Nat Turner, John Brown, and Malcolm X come to mind as exemplars.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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