Wednesday, October 17, 2018

"The Book I Did Not Write: Other Approaches," Paper in Paris, 12 October 2018

Last Friday, 12 October 2018, I delivered one of the three keynote addresses at the Frederick Douglass Across and Against Times, Places, and Disciplines conference held in Paris (yes, THAT Paris -- the one in Europe, not the one in Texas). The whole event was a spectacular gathering of scholars working in philosophy, political science, literature, history, and all sorts of humanities from all types of schools and engaging with Douglass's world with about as many different sensibilities and sympathies as there were people in attendance. Helene Quanquin, one of the organizers, said that the conference was filled to capacity, and certainly all of the sessions that I attended had very few empty seats. (Like in our classrooms, those empty seats tended to be front and center -- indeed, people would rather sit on the floor than sit in the front row!)

I'm posting the video of my keynote here, but one of the papers that I heard and that I want to highlight is Rhae Lynn Barnes's digital history project, "Frederick Douglass in the City of Lights: Walking Tour," which is part of a large project, U.S. History Scene. She did this project with undergraduate students of all levels, and used Douglass's experience, among others, as a means of engaging with issues of race and class in Paris today. It's quite spectacular and similar to some of the work Amy Cools has been doing in her posts on her blog, Ordinary Philosophy. Next time I'm in Paris, this will be on my itinerary!

Now, on to my paper, "The Book I Did Not Write: Other Approaches to Women in the World of Frederick Douglass."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Engendering Douglass: The Women Who Shaped a 'Self-Made Man'" by Our Earnest Struggle

Frederick Douglass is often described as a self-made man. Yet his life was profoundly shaped by the women around him--both those who helped and loved him, and those who used and opposed him. Our guests introduce us to some of them, and discuss the challenges of recovering their stories.

Professor Leigh Fought (LeMoyne College) is author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (2017). She paints an intimate portrait of Douglass’s wife, Anna; searches the record for his grandmother, Betsey; demystifies his relationship with “fr'enemy” Susan B. Anthony; and explains how Ida B. Wells rekindled his activist fire.
Annette Daniels Taylor, a Buffalo-based poet and performer with Young Audiences of Western New York, talks about the art of conjuring the past. She discusses her soundwalk through the Douglasses’ Rochester and brings Anna Douglass and neighbor Jenny Marsh Parker to life.

Image: "Anna Murray Douglass" mural by Shawn Dunwoody, School 12, Rochester, NY
This interview with poet Annette Daniels Taylor and me highlights Anna Douglass from two different directions and disciplines. Imagination plays a different but crucial role in both of our work, too, as we both try to reconstruct her world within our specific crafts and with our particular goals. Although our interviews were conducted separately, we seem to be in a conversation with one another, touching on similar ideas (partly through the skill of the interviewer).

Annette Daniels Taylor's work can be found here at the Frederick Douglass Experiment. It's a beautiful and fascinating combination of poetry, history, and tourism, revealing the veils that layer a place.

Monday, October 15, 2018

2018 Harriet Tubman Prize Finalists Announced

Many an unfortunate and amazing thing has happened since my last blog post. Some are worthy of posts of their own, such as the fascinating Douglass conference in Paris this past weekend and the Douglass in Paris walking tour website created by one of the speakers, Rhae Lynn Barnes and her students. Today, however, this appeared in my "In Box" wholly unexpectedly:

The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery is pleased to announce the finalists of the annual Harriet Tubman Prize. In December, the prize of $7,500 will be awarded to the best nonfiction book published in the United States on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery in the Atlantic World in 2017.

A Readers Committee of scholars and librarians selected the three finalists: Leigh Fought’s Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (Oxford UP); Tiya Miles’ The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (The New Press); and Tamara J. Walker’s Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Lima (Cambridge UP).

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave as well as Douglass’s varied relationships with white women who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

Tiya Miles’ The Dawn of Detroit pieces together the experience of the unfree—both native and African American—in the frontier outpost of Detroit, a place wildly remote yet at the center of national and international conflict. Miles introduces new historical figures and unearths struggles that remained hidden from view until now. The result is fascinating history, little explored and eloquently told, of the limits of freedom in early America, one that adds new layers of complexity to the story of a place that exerts a strong fascination in the media and among public intellectuals, artists, and activists.

In Exquisite Slaves, Tamara J. Walker examines how slaves used elegant clothing as a language for expressing attitudes about gender and status in the wealthy urban center of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Lima, Peru. Drawing on traditional historical research methods, visual studies, feminist theory, and material culture scholarship, Walker argues that clothing was an emblem of not only the reach but also the limits of slaveholders’ power and racial domination. Even as it acknowledges the significant limits imposed on slaves’ access to elegant clothing, Exquisite Slaves also showcases the insistence and ingenuity with which slaves dressed to convey their own sense of humanity and dignity.

Congratulations to the finalists! The winner will be chosen by a Selection Committee and announced in December.

What an honor to be in the company of such incredible historians who do work of such complexity. I confess to being a particular fan of Miles's Haunted South, so I'm kind of rooting for her; but then Exquisite Slaves also sounds like a fascinating study. Women has no chance here, but so what? Look at the company it keeps and look at the committee that honored it this way. Thank you!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Frederick Douglass Freedom Day: What Was Anna Doing?

Still trying to make Frederick Douglass Freedom Day a Thing. After all, in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, at the very beginning of Second Part, Chapter 2, he said, "My free life began on the third of September 1838." (A year before the Amistad saga began, incidentally.)

Last year I wrote about Frederick Bailey donning a sailor suit and hopping a northbound train, ticket and borrowed protection papers in hand.  In his autobiographies, he told of his first few days, uncertain of whom to trust or where to turn, until directed to David Ruggles on Lispard Street. At some point during that time, he wrote to "Anna, my intended wife," who arrived from Baltimore, "to share the burdens of life with me." The Rev. J.W.C. Pennington, himself a former slave, now minister, married them in the presences of witnesses on September 15, "a few days after her arrival."

September 3, the day that Frederick left Baltimore, to September 15, the day that Frederick Bailey and Anna Murray were married. Considering the time for the letter to reach Murray and that she arrived a few days before the wedding, let's say ten days elapsed there between his departure and the news that he had arrived safely. Think back before then. He said that he had decided to take his own fate into his hands three weeks earlier. That makes a month in which Anna's life hung in the balance along with her future husband's. What did she do during this time?

The one source for her side of the story comes from their daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, who wrote a memoir in the early twentieth century, My Mother As I Recall Her. The similarities between this story of her mother and those told by her brothers suggest that this was the family origin story and was, therefore, of great importance to all of the Douglasses. Rosetta's emphasis on her mother's role in the origin, along with the domestic details absent from the brothers' accounts, tells quite a bit about Anna's role in the family from the very beginning.

"The three weeks prior to the escape were very busy and anxious weeks," Sprague related, going on to point out that Anna Murray had saved her earnings and that "The little that they [her mother and father] possessed was the outcome of the industrial and economical habits that were characteristic of my mother." She detailed the "feather bed with pillows, bed linen, dishes, knives, forks and spoons, besides a well filled trunk of wearing apparel for herself," and, as most brides (and their little girl daughters) would remember, "a new plum colored silk dress was her wedding gown."

What would Anna's story of September 3, 1838 look like?

Had she saved her trousseau in hopes of some unknown but much desired future with a husband and family of her own, long before she had known of this young caulker with so much swagger? Had she begun to accumulate it when she met him probably earlier that year? (Had meeting her been his inspiration for the arrangement of pseudo-freedom that he had with Hugh Auld between May and August?) Had she purchased it in those three weeks when they made their plans to go north? Had she waited until she arrived in the city and then went on a shopping spree? Perhaps not the last, since Sprague does say "brought with her." Did she sew that plum silk dress herself, knowing that it would be her wedding dress?

What was the conversation between them when he told her that he had resolved to leave? "Miss Murray, I am going. Come with me and be my wife." "Miss Murray, we cannot stay here and have a life worth living. We must go north where I -- we -- can be free." "Mr. Bailey, let's go north." "Mr. Bailey, how much longer must you put up with this?" "Mr. Bailey, we shall not have a family where you can be taken away. We shall go north were you -- we -- can be free." "Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Then, let's go."

Think also of what she, too, risked as they planned the journey. She lived in the house of a white family. As satisfied with her work as they may have been, would they have kept her on if they discovered she had helped a slave run away? Those preparations that Sprague mentioned. She must have done them in private, quietly, not arousing suspicion that anything unusual was afoot. Her mask must remain firmly in place, not showing anxiety nor joy nor trepidation nor hope.

What of that letter that she received from Frederick, notifying her of his safe arrival in New York?How many days did she have to wait for it to arrive? To whom was it addressed? Certainly not her nor her employers. Did he wait until he found the safety of Ruggles' home to send it, or did he post right away? What subterfuge did they use?

How did she herself get away? She had the money to buy the ticket. Did she have to call upon friends to hold her trousseau until she could slip away, pretending to go to market or church or on some other errand, then meet her friends to collect her baggage before she caught her own train north? How did her employers react when she did not return? What friends did she leave behind who, as her husband said of his own, "I loved almost as I did my life, -- and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression"?

Did the people she left behind include family? Remember that she had eleven brothers and sisters, perhaps some in Baltimore. Indeed, Frederick's outing of his own identity in his Narrative, while placing them all in danger of his return to slavery, allowed Anna the opportunity to reconnect with her own family, if she had not already done so. Her younger sister Charlotte began appearing in the records after this point, and moved in with the Douglasses in Rochester in the 1850s. Was she among those whom Anna left behind in Baltimore? How did they find one another again?

As she travelled, did she worry that she might encounter some visitor to her employer's home who might recognize her and ask questions? Did her heart break for the people she left behind? Or did she rejoice that she travelled toward a husband, maybe a baby in a year or so, a home to call her own? Did she feel that she was off on a great adventure? If she did, she had no idea how much of an adventure the next forty-four years would be.

What, too, would an older, Anna, further along on that adventure, advise that younger woman, sitting on that train, speeding toward the young, unemployed and penniless man with so much potential, waiting to marry her and "share the burdens of life"?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Amistad Marker in New London

This past Wednesday, August 29th, was the 179th anniversary of the Amistad's capture by the U.S. Coast Guard. I meant to post these photographs right after I returned from Mystic, but life got a little complicated and I ended up in Houston. There is no Douglass connection to Houston except perhaps his brother's brief time in Millican, which is northeast of the city; but I've covered that. That meant catching up, and the semester started, and blah blah blah excuses. So, here we are, pictures about the Amistad from New London. 

The Custom House, where the U.S. Coast Guard first brought the Amistad  and the rebels.
The Thames River and the New London docks lie just beyond the railroad tracks, behind it. 
Up the river you can find the Coast Guard Academy. The Custom House is now a museum.

Marker to the rebels featuring Cinque. The text says:

ON THIS SITE, August 29, 1839 ---
A federal investigative inquiry indicted 38 enslaved Mende Africans accused
of revolt on the high seas and murder of the captain and cook of the Spanish 
slave ship Amistad which was captured and brought into New London by U.S.
Revenue Cutter Washington. Lt. Gedney commanding.

This first step to Freedom revealed resources which ultimately through trials
in Hartford and New Haven, and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by former
President John Quincy Adams, won their liberty as persons to return home by
missionary ship to Sierra Leone in 1841.

Thames River Waves lapped against the white-striped low black hull of Amistad
for 14 months until it was refurbished and sold for salvage nearby at Joseph 
Lawrence's dock. The cargo of silks, satins, and other treasures were auctioned
off at this custom house on these front steps.

Amistad had unjustly held leader Joseph Cinque and his people as slaves in 
its hold before it became the vehicle for their passage to freedom. Never
before, or since, has there been record of such freedom won.

Lucille M. Showalter -- The Day.

On the wall, to the side of the entrance to the Custom House, 
you also find a marker to another, later claim of freedom:


On this site, September 30, 1859, Police Court Judge
Augustus H. Brandegee and Customs Collector John
 Perkins Mather freed a stowaway slave known as "Joe"
by applying Connecticut's Personal Liberty Law
against the federal Fugitive Slave Act, Judge Brandegee
asked the stowaway, "Do you want to be slave or free?'
The slave replied, "Free!"

This plaque was erected to celebrate the blessings of freedom
The Day
February 24, 1991

Learn more about the Amistad rebellion from Marcus Rediker's The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Rebellion.

By the way, the organizations formed to aid the defense of the rebels eventually became the American Missionary Association. During the Civil War, before the formation of the Freedman's Bureau but after Emancipation, the AMA was one of the largest organizations to mobilize to meet the basic needs of the formerly enslaved who had become displaced by the conditions of war. Among the first teachers were Helen Pitts and Edmonia Highgate.

Helen Pitts, of course, later became the second Mrs. Frederick Douglass. Edmonia Highgate was a friend of the Douglasses' children and of Jermain Loguen's children. As with Pitts, working in the conditions of Norfolk, Virginia, made her very ill both physically and from what was likely traumatic shock. She returned to Syracuse for a break, during which time Douglass made sure that she testafied about the conditions of the freedpeople to the 1864 "Colored Men's Convention," as they set an agenda for Reconstruction. When she recovered, she returned South to continue her work. She's buried here in Syracuse.

1844 - 1870

She devoted the labors of her brief
life to educating the freed slaves
in the South and her eloquence
enlightened the North to their plight.

For how inspiring the thought that 
these dear souls are "Forever Free."

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mystic, Connecticut

I'm off to Mystic, Connecticut, today for the roundtable on Mystic history at Groton Public Library tomorrow.

Douglass actually spoke in the area a few times, mostly in 1868. That makes complete sense, 1868 being an election year and Connecticut tending toward Republican. On December 19, 1867, he spoke in New London, the city that first harbored -- or would that be incarcerated? -- the Africans on the Amistad. The old Customs House even has a marker to the incident. Steven Spielberg filmed many of the outdoor, dock scenes of Amistad at Mystic Seaport; and if you want to see stars in the eyes of shipbuilders, ask the guys down at the Seaport shipyard about building the replica. The pure joy that would come over their faces!

To give you an idea of how close the two places are, when I worked at Mystic Seaport, I lived in New London and the commute was maybe 30 whole minutes from my front door to my desk, with stop lights and a bad attitude.

Douglass did not go home for Christmas that year, because he traipsed through parts of Massachusetts then back to Mystic on January 4, 1868. He went up the Connecticut River to Suffield, Connecticut, then over to Bridgeton, New Jersey, and Newburyport, Massachusetts, (birthplace of William Lloyd Garrison) after that. Such a wide range, all on rivers and near coasts, all within a week, suggest he travelled by boat. Then -- boom! -- Bath, New York, in the Finger Lakes seven days later and westward to the Old Northwest. A shift to the train.

He turned back to New England the following autumn, speaking to the YMCA at Armory Hall in Westerly, R.I., on November 30, which is really just right next door to Mystic, and then back to New London the next day and just north to Norwich on December 2. Norwich, he may or may not have known, was the birthplace of David Ruggles, his savior in New York City during his first 24 hours of freedom.

(I want to say that I've been to the Westerly Armory Hall, I think to watch that Billy Goat Boyfriend practice with his band in the basement, so I tried to block it all out.)

Douglass did not go back to that part of Connecticut until December 30, 1875, not an election year, but on the eve of a very important one, the one that ultimately ended Reconstruction in the South. I don't have much evidence that he travelled that way before the Civil War, but then the Stonington line was the last stretch of the coastal railroad line built, completed in 1858. Most of his attention in southern New England stayed around Providence and New Bedford before he shifted to New York. He was very strategic in the use of his powers.

Going where Douglass went, however, is always quite nice. I wonder what he saw and where he stayed, what he thought of a seaside town, himself having spend so much time among shipbuilders in his youth. This sort of attachment to a subject is one of the reasons I am so at loose ends now that this book is done, leaving me too jangled to settle into the next and feeling a bit like I have a post-partum depression (not that I know what that actually is like).

One last story about Douglass and Mystic: Mystic Seaport was the first place where I saw caulking, the job Frederick Bailey trained to do in Baltimore. Loud, smelling of pine pitch and hemp rope (no, not hemp like that!) and watery air, the moment seemed a bit like time-travel, seeing this old skill in practice with period tools on a ship old enough that Douglass himself could have worked on the original boards, and thinking of him doing the same.

ETA: Read more here, including a link to tomorrow's podcast of the event.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Douglass at the 2018 State Fair

Beginning next Wednesday, August 22, 2018, the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark, John Brown Lives, the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State will host a series of events at the New York State Fair here in Syracuse, the "Convention City" of the nineteenth century.

One set of programs commemorates the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial:

Wed., Aug. 22, 3:00 p.m.:  1850 Fugitive Slave Convention: Douglass and Smith, Hugh C. Humphreys.

Sat., Aug. 25, 2:00 pm: Drama: A Time in the Life of Frederick Douglass, Shields Green, and a Woman Called Moses, Akwaaba Players.

Sun., Aug. 26, 2:00 pm: Equality Day: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought (me!) -- Cancelled due to out-of-town family emergency.

Mon., Aug. 27, 2:00 pm: The Innocence of Experience: Fanny Seward in Her Own Words, Maria Coleman

Tues., Aug. 28, 2:00 pm: Conserving Frederick Douglass, Tom Hunter

Wed., Aug. 29, 2:00 pm: 1850 Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Convention: Douglass & Smith, Hugh C. Humphreys

Thurs., Aug. 30, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass in Chautauqua County: Researching the Underground Railroad in NYS, Karen Livsey

Fri., Aug. 31, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass and Other Friends of Timbuctoo, Martha Swan

Sat., Sept. 1, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass, Quakers, and Reform in Upstate New York, Judith Wellman

Sun., Sept. 2, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass and Quakers, and the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse, Reginald Neale

Mon., Sept 3, 2:00 pm: Frederick Douglass, Quakers, and Reform in Upstate New York, Judith Wellman

All events will be held in the Empire Theater in the Arts & Home Center, circled in blue below.:

The Underground Railroad Consortium program has scheduled these events:
I confess that I haven't been to a State Fair since the 1986 Texas State Fair, although I've been to smaller county fairs once or twice since then. (I went to one with a boyfriend of the time who seemed a bit too fascinated with the billy goats, which should have been my first clue that something wasn't right about him, like attracting like and all. He's someone else's problem now, thank heavens!) I'm kind of excited to see what it is all about, what with my memories of quilts and Cinderella's carriage-sized pumpkins and such. I hope to see butter-making, or sculptures, anyway. 

I digress. 

The State Fair hails the beginning of the semester, which means anything not involving the classroom falls by the wayside from lack of time and lack of energy. My energy has been sorely taxed of late already, too. Still, the Paris conference beckons in early October, as well as a pass through London that includes Othello. With luck, I shall have the data to post on those from there. Otherwise, the next post may not appear for yet another year. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Douglasses in Venice, 18-19 May 1887

Douglass's glide past the "house where Desdemoni resided when wooed by Othelo," came amid a two days, and a quick passage in his travel diary, of Venetian splendors. He visited the city on May 18-19, 1887, and wrote on May 21st, while in Milan.:

"The ride from Florence to Venice was delightful. The weather was neither too hot nor too cold, and bright sunshine gave a lustre to the snow crowned Appenines and set them off attractively and imposingly."

"As to Venice itself I can only say it surpassed all the ideas I had formed of it."
"It is a city by itself."
"I had read of its canals,..."
"...its Gondolas,..."
"...its Rialtos,..."
"...its palaces,..."
"...and its wonders of art,..."
"...and its churches,..."

"...and was prepared to look upon all with admiration,..."
"...but had after small comprehension of its charms..."

"The Square in front of St. Mark..."

"...that monarch..."

"...of churches..."
"...flancked by the Doge's Palace..."
"...and arcades on the other..."

"...once seen will never be forgotten, and will always fill the mind with peculiar pleasure."

"In looking at Venice as it is, with the marks of decay upon it,..."
"...though still in many respects the most beautiful of cities..."
"....but we easily think of what it must have been in the days of its [glory]...."
"...when it was the city of Merchant Princes,..."
"...and had control of the rich commerce of all the East,..."
"...when it was a free Republic."

"I saw its Biblotyc containing acres of volumes, and precious manuscripts. Among these I saw letters from three great Americans, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamen Franklin." 

"On the great canal, I saw the house where Desdemoni resided when wooed by Othelo." 

"No where else than in Venice is glass manufactured into more perfect forms of beauty."

"Where climate, sea and sky are so beautiful..." is not strange...
"…that they should suggest beauty to the artificers..." all kinds of works."

Source: Frederick Douglass, Travel Diary, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Read about Douglass's Radical Friend, Amy Post

Since I seem to be on a roll highlighting authors, why not keep going with one I meant to mention when the book first arrived in my mailbox? Nancy A. Hewitt's Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds.

Hewitt wrote an fantastic study of Rochester's reforming women, Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872, that was one of those earlier important studies of women's political behavior and of the ways that the antislavery movement functioned and fit among other social movements. One of the figures at the center of several networks in that study was Amy Kirby Post. Amy Kirby Post was also a key figure in Douglass's career, being instrumental in his move to Rochester to establish his paper. 

Post and her husband Isaac (but most she) always found the vanguard of any organization. They were not just Friends, but Hicksite Friends, and then left the Hicksites because the Hicksites were not bold enough in denouncing slavery. Then they became some of the first Spiritualist. (Douglass thought this was nonsense and had to apologize to them when he was a bit rude during a séance.) They went to the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention and signed the Declarations of Sentiment. Amy Post not only helped Douglass, but also helped Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl find a publisher, and she helped people fleeing the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. She remained a Garrisonian as Douglass became more political, and they had a parting of the ways, but she was always -- I thought -- one of the most decent figures in all of the intra-abolitionist squabbles. 

For the longest time, the only biography of Post was an article written by Hewitt for the University of Rochester Library Bulletin. So, much was the joy when the University of North Carolina Press published her book-length biography of Post this year. Hewitt has teased out an extensive web of family and religious ties that extend from Long Island to Western New York and beyond.  Post's alienation from Douglass in the late 1850s meant that she had more contact with the figures who dropped out of his story, which, taken with Post's other reform activities, means that Hewitt describes a whole sets of women who either ended up on the cutting room floor or didn't come near my book, as much as I would have liked them to. Harriet Jacobs and Lucy Colman being two. 

So, reading Radical Friend is reading an expanded universe of Douglass, but it is also the story of an honestly good woman with incredible inner steel.

The Isaac and Amy Kirby Post Family Papers live at the University of Rochester, which also has a digitized project, a godsend to researchers who cannot visit. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Next Book?

I have two book ideas for the future. One has absolutely nothing to do with Douglass and will probably be the one that takes precedent. The other, well, I may toy with it for a while and I'm not sure that I am the person to write it. I'm not sure that my mind works in the way it should to make the book what it should be. Still, the questions embedded in the book -- and the desire to have someone pay me to follow in Douglass's footsteps -- keep rattling around in my head.

This book idea is Douglass on the Grand Tour. Have I mentioned it? This was the reason for some of those posts from his travel diary last year. From 1886-1887, Douglass and his second wife, Helen embarked upon the Grand Tour of Europe. This journey took them through England, France, Italy, and Greece, and they made a detour through the Suez Canal and up the Nile River in order to, as Douglass put it, “determine if the pyramids were built by the ancestors of white or black people.” While much Douglass literature has focused on his tours of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the two decades before the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), and some have considered his interest in Egypt, little scholarship has seriously considered the purpose or importance of Douglass, an African-American travelling through Europe with his white wife at that particular moment in the history of race and ethnology.

On the scholarship, let me clarify: little scholarship that I know of in my admittedly limited scouting thus far. I do know that Robert Levine wrote about Douglass's Roman trip, and there is a growing body of literature on African Americans travelling abroad. This would also have to fit in with Douglass's later and earlier sojourns to the Caribbean. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Grand Tour of the European continent represented the pinnacle of intellectual sophistication which tourist acquired through encounters with the great art and artifacts of ancient civilizations claimed by Europe. Many American used the opportunity both to connect themselves to the vestiges of this heritage and to contrast the monarchies of Europe with the democracy of the United States. Douglass participated in this ritual, but he also occupied a more complicated position in relation to Euro-centric ideas of "civilization" and American exceptionalism.

Douglass contrasted the monarchical and Roman Catholic influences of Europe unfavorably with the greater democracy and secularism of the U.S., but he found less racism, particularly in the social acceptance of his interracial marriage. He also searched for signs of others from the African diaspora, hoping to challenge the racial determinism aimed at former slaves in the United States by contrasting American racial prejudice with what he perceived as its absence in Europe. Yet, he did this while European nations justified their imperial "Scramble for African" as the "White Man's Burden." 

This quest for African influences developed as he travelled further south, noting folkways closer to the Mediterranean that resembled those he recalled from slavery, and led him to venture to the African continent. His purpose in visiting the pyramids, which he climbed only weeks after his seventieth birthday, was a response to the nineteenth-century, pro-colonial, anthropological debates that refused to recognize Egypt as African in order to cast Africans and their descendants as inherently incapable of creating great civilizations.

I'm still toying with ideas -- or perhaps gathering ingredients since my metaphor is actually that this is all half-baked. Heck, it's hardly half-mixed at this point. Whenever I am in Europe, especially outside of northern Europe, with my own awareness of my own internal, racial classification systems and the ways that they formed, I wonder at theirs. This year Spain intrigued me because of its history in the Americas, and the byzantine racial history of the U.S. southwest. Douglass walked in with his own racial history and context at a different period in Europe's racial history, which was more clearly tied up with nationalism. How did he experience it? In the breach between the two contexts -- Europe and the U.S. -- what nuances can we see in both, or at least in U.S. racial history?

I'm not sure that I have the tools to tell that story; but I will keep thinking about it.