Frederick Douglass's biographers have also weighed in on her appearance. Benjamin Quarrels wrote, "Her straight black hair and her inexpressive features gave her face an Indian cast." Dickson Preston went so far as to add, "Anna was dark and quiet." William McFeely, who insists that Anna was not only quiet but inarticulate, had his own embellishments: "Anna was a full-lipped, ample woman. Her skin was deeper and richer in color than Frederick’s, and her eyes were softer and wittier than his, which seldom relaxed their watchful intensity." Arna Bontemps flat out said, "Anna Murray was not blessed with good looks."
Her inability to read also figures into these accounts, as do comparisons with Douglass's second, white wife, Helen Pitts, and efforts to portray her as the model Victorian housewife. Those are all issues to develop at another time.
Yes, Anna was dark. What of it? Seriously, what of it? What does her dark skin reveal about her? The contrasts with Douglass were explicit, and his contemporaries noted that his lighter skin tone indicated the miscegenation that he himself addressed in his autobiographies. The implication, then, would be that Anna's ancestry had less miscegenation than her husband's and that more of her predecessors came from Africa than from Europe. (I'm not quite sure of what to do with the constant genealogical references to possible Native American ancestry, all unsubstantiated, yet. That's another line of inquiry.) White people, even among Douglass's allies, found a closer tie to Africa either distasteful, as in the case of Bremer, or a political asset. "I wish he were full blood black for I fear your pro-slavery people will attribute his pre-eminent abilities to the white blood that is in his veins," Catherine Clarkson wrote to Maria Weston Chapman, in 1846. What of his wife, then, who was assumed to be "full blood black"? How did she react to this politicizing of her husband's and, by extension, her skin color? The color, in fact, seems to become less about the person than the color itself, a fetish.
I wonder about Anna's African ancestry and how that would fit into her experience. Her father was supposed to have been named Bambarra, according to Rosetta Douglass Sprague's memoir. Bambarra was the name of a group of people along the Senegambian River and a name the European traders gave to anyone captured and traded at the mouth of the river, regardless of their actual background. Given that she was born sometime around 1813 and was supposed to have been the 8th child of her parents, both of her mother and father -- like Douglass's mother and grandmother -- were born before the U.S. had withdrawn from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This line of questioning will require a little more digging into the trade patterns on the Eastern Shore; but the hypothesis here is that her father or a grandparent came from either Africa or -- since a many Chesapeake slaves were imported from the Caribbean -- Barbados. This African lineage was linked to Anna's appearance. The color of her skin, being of such note to Frederick's associates, set her apart from them and could have affected her relationship with her husband both in his view of her and in her reticence in his world.
I seem to have digressed. I started this post with the intention of getting to this one detail that has intrigued me for the past few days. Benjamin Quarrels quotes a letter from Minnie Blackall Bishop to Charles H. Wiltsie, written in 1929, in which she wrote that Anna would wear a "'dark cotton dress and a red bandanna on her head'." This letter is in the Rochester Public Library, so it is on my list to find this summer, as is Jane Marsh Parker's and reminiscences.
The red bandanna caught my attention. White women did not tend to dress like that. They wore caps and bonnets and hats. Go south, however, to Savannah, to Charleston, to plantations, and black women wore scarves around their heads. Scarves protected their hair; and Stephanie Camp argues that, under those scarves, women braided and styled their hair in a creative expression of self, claiming their bodies as their own in defiance of the system of slavery. Scarves also hearkened back to the African practice of headwraps.