Saturday, January 29, 2011

Anna Douglass's Bandanna

Most accounts of Anna Douglass mention her dark skin. Ottilia Assing, before she had reason to be jealous, described her as, "completely black," in contrast to Frederick Douglass's lighter skin. Fredericka Bremer, also contrasting Anna's color with that of her husband, wrote: "It was his wife and little daughter I spoke of as being very black."

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.

Was her bandanna a connection to her African ancestry, a persistence of African folkways on the Eastern Shore? I find this detail intriguing too because, just as Camp argues for enslaved women's use of fashion and appearance as an expression of self, this detail might also be an expression of Anna's self. Perhaps she had always worn a headwrap, a scarf, since her days in Baltimore and saw no reason to give it up in the North. Perhaps the scarf represented home, her past, part of where she came from, and nothing to be ashamed of or discard.

I have an idea about Anna that she had a strong sense of herself. Herself, however, was constantly in a world hostile to her race. Her husband brought her into a world that could be very patronizing toward her, and both he and his world -- largely white, predominantly middle class, lettered -- sent her many messages that she was somehow unfit or in need of improvement. I think she had a different definition of herself and had to hold herself in opposition to them to maintain her identity. The headwrap might be a small example of that identity. 


  1. There are lots of archaeological examples of the persistence of African folkways in that area. Early work identifies particular objects (blue beads, pierced coins, quartz crystals, etc.) and markings (X's in particular on objects) as definitive indications that blacks were living at a site. Recent scholarship is more nuanced, looking at adaptations between both African and European cultures and how objects were used vs. what objects were (like the scarf; as you suggest, it could have held much more meaning for Anna in how and why it was worn than just its material self).

    Chris Fennell wrote a good book on this, "Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World" (2007). I haven't finished reading it, but am familiar with his precursor work. Good stuff. He also just recently published an overview of archaeological research to date, "Early African America: Archaeological Studies of Significance and Diversity" in the Journal of Archaeological Research (2010; no Volume/Issue number yet as its released online only so far). There are more refs, of course, but I won't eat up all your comment space!

  2. Thank you, Digger! That's exactly what I'm trying to get at: how and why she wore it could have lots of meaning for her. What meaning, I'll never know, but it is worth a consideration, especially since there have been only two inquiries into the African/African American features of her life (other than her skin color). One had to do with the slave trade on the Eastearn shore. The other was a pretty clumsy interpretation based on a misunderstanding of her telling Ottilia Assing that Assing had "bewitched" Douglass. I'll take a look at those two sources. It seems that the main way to get at Anna's world is going to be through material culture. Daunting and exciting!

    The pin is cool, isn't it? I keep trying to figure out what's on it. The original daguerreotype would help, but from this, it appears to be a man wearing epaulettes. To say it is Toussaint is soooo tempting. I wonder if the object is at Cedar Hill or the Moorland-Springarn?

    By the way: congratulations!

  3. If the pix are on the NPS website, dollars to donuts the objects are at Cedar Hill. Wonder what other goodies they have in storage? In fact, I wonder how much of the interpretation deals with other family/household members besides Douglass himself?

    That other photo that Cedar Hill has of Anna also has her in a head scarf. I think you're totally on to something, and am now completely curious about her other things.

    Mary Beaudry's done some interesting studies of women creating/negotiating identity through the use of material goods, and Paul Mullin's work on the meanings carried in African-American use/consumption of mass-produced goods covers exactly the Cedar Hill period. Geeze, see what happens when you mention *stuff* to an archaeologist?

    And thanks! Eeeeeeeee!

  4. I wonder if any of Linda Baumgarten's work might be of use for pulling out the practices of kerchief and bandanna-wearing (she does neat stuff with material/dress history for the Colonial and federal period). My own knowledge of dress history pretty well peters out in the 17th century, though.

  5. Hi, Clio - I am so excited to find your blog. I'm researching the Blackall family of Rochester and ran across it when I googled Minnie Blackall Bishop's name. The Blackalls were very good friends with Susan B. Anthony and Fredk. Douglass. I live in Rochester and haven't yet seen the letter you reference. I'll do some digging and share what I find! I do have copies of letters between the family and Douglass (and Anthony), along with a wonderful letter by Gertrude Blackall to the local museum relating what she recalled of the Douglass family growing up. We should exchange notes! I'm at Good luck on your research!