Monday, October 10, 2011

Frederick Douglass's Parents

I'm working on a paper about Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey. I confess that I'm at a slight disadvantage in that Dublin is not exactly the best place to get your hands on the secondary literature about American history. Nor is it the best place to get microfilmed versions of some of the documents that you need. Nonetheless, I soldier on, and will worry less about this when I'm focused solely on the shitty first draft of the book and not on papers that will pave the way to fall flat on my face in front of a learned audience.

In the case of Douglass's mother, one of the first steps toward an original interpretation of her life is to take what people know about her in relation to Douglass and turn it about. What does her life look like when she is at the center and not a supporting character or symbol in Douglass's work? One of the first things that I've discovered is that she gave birth at a fairly steady pace. Take a look at this list of her children and their birth dates (adapted from Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, p. 206):

Perry - b. January 1813
Sarah - b. August 1814
Eliza - b. March 1816
Frederick - b. February 1818
Kitty - b. March 1820
Arianna - b. October 1822
Harriet (Jr.) - b. c. 1825

She gave birth roughly every two years, with an average of 23.5 (or thereabouts -- my math ain't so good) between children. If you saw this list, not knowing that these children were slaves but knowing that they were siblings, you might suspect that they all had the same mother and father since this is the regular childbearing that you find in most nineteenth century families.

Most of Douglass's biographers just assume that he had a different father from his siblings. One even refers to his siblings as his "half" siblings; but, from the looks of this he fits right in as if he had the same father as those sisters before and after, who fit right in as if they had the same father as their brother and sisters before and after themselves. In other words, if Aaron Anthony, their master, was Douglass's father, then he was also their father.

That also shifts our perspective on the life of his mother, whoever the father might have been. He could have been another slave belonging to another master. He could have been a free black man. He could have been a white man other than her master; or, he could have been Aaron Anthony. Whoever he was, by either consent or force, he had access to her body from 1812 until she died in 1825 or 1826. That rules out Perry Ward Steward, the overseer on one of the farms where she worked; James Nabb and John Malony, to whom she was hired out during her teens; and Thomas Auld ( a theory of William McFeely, which holds no water for logistical reasons, too), Douglass's second master. Because of age or death, none of these men had access to her for the entire period of her childbearing years.

For a while, I was suspicious of claiming Anthony as Douglass's father. So many have, but without any thought beyond Douglass's word in the Narrative alone. Then, he said that it was mere rumor. In he second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, he said that he had reason to believe that his master was not his father. He completely dismissed the matter in all versions of his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. The whole discussion of his parentage, too, is shaded by the propagandist purpose of each version of his life. Much of what he says is true, but spun for a variety of reasons at a particular point in time, and maybe not true in quite the way that he thinks it is.

In any case, I still will not say certainly that Anthony was his father, but I'm seeing a stronger case for Anthony. Not only was he Harriet's master, which meant that he could do as he pleased with her body; but, at the time she became pregnant with her first three children, she worked for his much older sister. She worked on his farm during the conception and birth of the rest of her children. I also have another piece to consider in regard to Harriet's sister, Hester, but will save that for another time. Yet, even without that piece, Anthony cannot be ruled out entirely.

If Anthony was the father, then, what sort of interaction produced these children? (I mean, besides from the obvious.) At the most basic level, these children were always the products of rape because Harriet did not have the power or right to refuse Anthony. Yet, as Annette Gordon-Reed demonstrated, the Hemings women also did not have the power or right to refuse the Jefferson, Wayles, Randolph and other men who went after them. Still, they were able to leverage whatever influence they had over these men into improved conditions for themselves, their families, and the children of these encounters. Was Harriet able to do the same? I'm not discerning any advantage that she earned from giving birth to these seven children.

So, was her interaction with Anthony more brutal? He beat the living daylights out of Harriet's sister Hester because Hester preferred a black man to him (again, more on that story later). Did Harriet experience a similar beating or expect a similar beating if she herself refused? If the latter was the case, might that explain her absence from so much of Douglass's childhood before her death? Douglass said that he did not remember seeing his mother the entire time that he lived at his grandmother's cabin when he was between 2 and 6 or 7 years old. He explained his mother's absence by the restrictions of slavery that prevented his mother from travelling the long distances to visit him; but that long distance of twelve miles to which he referred only separated them for two years, when he was between 7 and 9. For those other years, she lived less than a mile away.

The unspoken question  in his autobiographies, as he attempted to comprehend his mother's absence, is "why did she not visit me?" accompanied by the insistence that the single visit that he did recall in detail was proof of "a bright gleam of a mother's love, and the earnestness of a mother's care" (Bondage and Freedom, Yale edition, p. 32).  Mothers of children who resulted from rape respond to those children in a million different ways, so might Harriet have found a visit to her children too painful in too many complicated ways to endure? This is not to question her love for her children, but to consider the range of emotions that she may have felt as she contemplated these reminders of the violence done to her body. These reminders being small children who had no way of understanding these conditions of her life.

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