Tuesday, November 27, 2018

DAY 2: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable

Black Perspectives, AAIHSFrederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018

In "Frederick Douglass's Vision of America," which has previously appeared in Public Seminar as "This is Your America: Why Frederick Douglass Still Matters," Roberts addresses his fellow American citizens with the same stinging indictment of hypocrisy that Douglass did in his own time. He points out the yawning gap between the ideal of "America" and its reality. 

I may actually have my students read this piece in the next week because Roberts gets at an idea that I've been trying to impress upon them this semester in teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey. I'm teaching another course with a philosopher, and she has introduced me to some theory that has given me the tools to shape some of what I already know through history. The ideas of racial projects, hegemony, and counter-hegemony have helped to organize this story that I'm helping these students learn. 

Hegemony is that ideal, the story that some Americans like to believe about the country, the history that they learned in high school that bored the crap out of most of them. Counter-hegemony -- or counter-narrative, as I'm often calling it -- is the push-back, the Douglasses and Turners and Veseys and Truths and Tubmans and Tecumsehs and Fanny Wrights and so on and so forth. The ones forcing America to live up to this ideal. The whole thing, the whole mess and conflict becomes a racial project, or a series of competing racial projects that are, in the end, a national project. What is race? What does that mean? Who decides? What does it look like? What forms of power, institutionalize and otherwise, are involved? What forms of resistance? 

But, I digress, having just read Roberts piece after teaching that class and the Crisis of the 1850s. 

David Blight turns to "Frederick Douglass's Childhood of 'Extremes," looking at both the violence that characterized the young Frederick's youth and his process of remembering it. Blight has that ability to tell a story so simply that you don't realize just how complex and layered it is until you reflect. When I look at the young Frederick, I think of a child who was profoundly abused down to his very soul. That fueled his sense of justice and his rage and, I think, a need for love, just as a man and a human. Blight's piece highlights that in no uncertain terms.  

At the end of his piece, he imagines Douglass taking up his pen to delve into his pain and set down his autobiography, but I would like to add in two figures who could easily have helped him in the process. The first was his wife, Anna, who grew up to age sixteen in Caroline County and then lived in the same part of Baltimore as Frederick. The other was their friend and "adopted sister" (her term, historians would call this part of a fictive kin network, and Ezra Greenspan intends to include her in his study of the extended family), who went by the names Harriet Bailey, Ruth Cox, Harriet Adams, and Ruth Adams (Adams being her married last name). She hailed from Easton, where she lived into her twenties, in Talbot County. While Douglass' memory was prodigious, as I imagine people's memories were in those days moreso than now, there is certainly no reason that these two women did not help him along with some details of their own. Indeed, Douglass mentions a cousin of his wife who was beaten to death by Mrs. Giles Hicks, suggesting that Anna gave him some material herself. 

Tomorrow, Noelle Trent's piece will appear, followed by mine about Anna Douglass on Thursday. Friday, Christopher Shell will interview Kenneth B. Morris, Jr

Once again, the comments there (and here) are moderated in order to weed out verbally-abusive trolls desperate for attention. The AAIHS has had more than their share of problems in that department, as you can imagine.

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