Monday, April 15, 2019

A Day of Loss, and a Significant Win

My intention today was to post a video of one of my two talks that I gave last week in Rochester but, alas, the news cycle seems to have overtaken that.

First, I awaken to the news that David Brion Davis, the great historian of slavery, has died. He became an important voice in twentieth-century scholarship in situating U.S. racial slavery in the global history of slavery and then conceptualizing the challenge that its existence presented to a society that claimed to be based on equality. If you've read a book about slavery written in the past thirty years, it was influenced by him. One of my first college classes in history was with one of his former students, Steven Mintz.

Then came the news that Notre Dame, which has suffered centuries of warfare, revolutions, Nazis, and city planning, has fallen to that bane of history: fire. This is relevant only in that I passed it every single day at the Douglass conference in Paris last October (where I let my gremlins be my muses) and that its loss seems emblematic of so many other losses to world culture, to history, to our ability to write history, and to its value.

Although he did not have a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in his library, preferring instead Les Miserables for his Hugo, Douglass did actually see Notre Dame himself when he travelled to France in 1886-87. You can read a bit more about his journeys in Paris at the Frederick Douglass in the City of Lights: Walking Tour or in part one of his 1887 speech "My Foreign Travels." (That section of his and Helen's travel diaries are blank. They were neither in the habit of keeping journals.) He merely said, "...after exploring the aisle and crypts of Notre Dame and more old churches than I have time to mention and which speak to us of the dead past, I turn to the living present..." and described the French courts and government, all part of performing the American tourist comparing the decrepit Old World institutions to the vigorous New World's while also critiquing the hypocrisy of that vigorous New. Later, he described a boat trip -- similar to one that I took in 2012 -- that took passengers "down by solemn old Notre Dame, with her grim old walls and lofty towers, down by the Ille Saint Louis, the home of poet Theodore Tilton" whom he visited while in Paris.

The Baedeker guide that he and Helen brought with them described the Notre Dame that he saw. The cathedral that he saw had only been restored in 1845 after being left to decay during the Revolution. Although used as a military encampment by the communards a decade an a half before his visit, the fire they set on their retreat had caused minimal damage.  All of this according to the guide, of course. Still, the Douglasses, too, could have gone up the two front towers for the view of the city while petting the grotesques that protected the cathedral. They, too, would have seen the statue of Charlemagne in the Place.  Then, behind, they could have visited the Morgue, where the unidentified body of Ottilie Assing had been discovered on display after her suicide three years earlier. The memorial to the Jewish deportees during the Occupation now sits on that spot.

Finally, good news:  David Blight's biography of Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, racked up another award and won the Pulitzer Prize. This could not happen to a more generous and deserving scholar. The committee consisted of some fine historians whose own research and prose make me turn into Wayne and Garth: Annette Gordon-Reed, Tiya Miles, and Marcus Rediker. (Marcus Rediker, incidentally, trained my husband in the trade.) That's two African American women and a Marxist, for those keeping score, one who has written about a Founding Father, one who has written about borderlands, and one who has written about the sea. Oddly enough, I think Douglass fits into all of those categories in one way or another. Their good opinion and judgement is well worth having. I'm very happy for David (and Douglass) and hope he is happy for himself!

So, we shall save the videos of last week's talks for another time.

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