Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Snag in Chapter One

I get trapped in my periodization sometimes. Originally, Chapter 1 broke down neatly into mothers and mistresses, with little overlap. Douglass's mother, the near non-entity he struggled to know as he wrote his autobiographies, is followed by his grandmother, whom he knew better and longer for the first few years of his memory. Then, he moved under the supervision of Lucretia Auld, then Sophia Auld, then Rowena Auld, then Sophia Auld again, then he ran away.

As I begin to get deeper into the story, this arrangement, which is a good skeleton, is far too simple. The mother and grandmother overlap; and, in the telling, the grandmother comes second, not first. At the Anthony house, where Lucretia moves to the front of the story, her counterpoint in the kitchen, Aunt Katy, begins to demand space (and she was quite the demanding woman in Douglass's version of events). Rowena Auld is little more than a guard dog of the pantry, and Douglass spent few months under her supervision for her to merit too much attention. During those months, however, it seems that his sister Eliza has some small role that he suggested but upon which he did not elaborate. His cousin Henny also pushes her way into the story. Yet, in this particular series of episodes in which he lived in Talbot County as a teenager, he carefully constructed and described a male-dominated world. Sophia he knew the longest and most intimately, and she appeared and re-appeared three times in his life. She will take up a good chunk of the chapter, and she will also reappear in a later chapter.

My initial divisions, too, have not taken into account the women scattered throughout his autobiographies who suffered brutal beatings and, he implied, rape. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, while he spoke in general terms of men being beaten, he described specific instances of beatings as happening to women (and one elderly man). I can buy that he saw few black women when he was hired out as a field hand in his teens in Talbot County, but in Baltimore, where he spent over half of his life until his escape, black women were in the majority. He only mentioned two, and they were beaten by a neighbor. As for free black women, he mentioned Sandy’s wife only. Otherwise, you would never know that black women could be free in Fells Point until you get to his marriage in New York to Baltimorean Anna Murray who, by the way, he mentioned in a footnote in the Narrative, was free.

As I organized this chapter, I had overlooked women who were not the primary caretakers of Douglass. Since this chapter has to do with his formative experiences with women and, by extension, his formative experiences with race, I cannot omit these women and the function that they served in creating the world in which he grew up. I also cannot omit the fact that he uses their stories in making his own point and that those stories only told what he saw and could use. He was not maliciously appropriating their lives, he seemed to be trying to speak for them when they could not, but he did not know or relate much more of their story than the beating, and they might have told the story in a different way. These often unnamed women haunt this chapter in a way that I have not yet fully incorporated and I have to do something with the absence of the free black women from his autobiographies.

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