In 1832, a global cholera pandemic reached US shores. Like COVID-19, cholera was a wholly new disease in the United States (although considerably deadlier), and it was, like the novel coronavirus, a poorly understood one that disproportionately affected immigrants and African Americans.1 The cholera pandemic began immediately following Nat Turner’s rebellion, which had triggered a wave of punitive laws against Black Americans. The early 1830s was, in other words, a time of brutal devastation for the African American community, particularly in the South. How, we might wonder, when faced with horrific violence, systemic injustice, and a descending global pandemic, could an enslaved fifteen-year-old Frederick Douglass do anything but despair? Crucially, he did not. Instead, Douglass’s understanding of Nat Turner’s murder, the racist legal retribution that followed, and the horrors wrought by cholera appear in the context of his awakening to the...

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