Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum

After a lovely weekend in New York City talking to teachers about Douglass and women and the Civil War, and then a beautiful wedding of a former student in Washingtonville, I'm back home and preparing for this Thursday's talk.

If you are in Chittenango, birthplace of Wizard of Oz author of L Frank Baum who was also son-in-law of suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who lived in my neighborhood, drop on by. My talk will be at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum on the old Erie Canal at 7:00 pm. A $5.00 donation is suggested for non-members of the museum. The subject will be "Frederick Douglass, Woman's Rights Man" and is part of their Woman Suffrage series. For more information on the talk and the museum, visit their website.

For more information on "Frederick Douglass, Woman's Rights Man: Woman Suffrage Series" click here.

Oh, and contract for Sally Hemings: Given Her Time signed with a deadline of September 2021 (gulp!). Expect to be able to assign it to classes the following year. She may start encroaching on this blog, which would probably require renaming the whole thing. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, July 22, 2019


Y'all! Look what happened!

Henry --
Thank you kindly for your sweet and
thoughtful gift. Your support of 
"Hamilton" means the world. I look 
forward to dive into Mr. Fought's
"Women in the World of Frederick
Douglass." Here's wishing you all
the best.

Henry McCartney of the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery and a fan of Douglass and the women in his life brought his book club to Syracuse so we could discuss Women in the World of Frederick Douglass last spring. We had such a wonderful evening chatting about Frederick and Anna and Helen and all of the others. Everyone thought the book would make a great movie or even a musical like Hamilton. So Henry decided to send a volume to Lin-Manuel Miranda. I mean, what the heck! That was one of the coolest things anyone has ever done for it.

Low and behold, Miranda wrote a thank you note back. Sure, he gets a million fan letters a minute, probably. Sure, an assistant probably composed it. Sure, my gender was switched. Still: Lin-Manuel Miranda has a copy of my book!

Not that him having it is any more important than when a teacher or someone at a talk or someone chatting with me learns about it and runs into the bookstore to buy it or someone contacts me because they came across a blog post in a bit of serendipity. Those are all equally fantastic in their own ways. They make the book something beyond me.  I loved researching it, writing it, having it published, being recognized as having written it, being an expert on it, and all of that. Still, when someone comes to you and says that the book spoke to them and that they appreciated a particular point that it made or a depiction of a person (Anna has become quite beloved), then a circle has closed. Some final missing touch has brought the whole endeavor into a life of its own, like fairy dust. Magic!

There is another type of magic, too, like this weekend at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic meeting (start putting together panel proposals for next year -- CFP up soon!). I was just chair of a panel of some fabulous young scholars on abolition, not presenting a paper, and I was on a committee to award the Mary Kelley Book Prize (the same one that I won last year), which went to Nora Doyle's incredible Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America, her first book. Nancy Hewitt, by the way, won the biography prize for her much anticipated and worth-the-wait Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds. I was also catching up with two old friends whom I hadn't seen in ages. Conferences can be like that. Being, now, at a point in my career where I'm helping to award prizes to scholars earlier in their careers and presiding over their panels, and seeing the thoughtful and creative directions their thinking has taken the study of this period makes me realize that there are many parts to this circle, and many circles.

I also had a couple of encounters with people whose work has influenced my own and they said that Women in the World of Frederick Douglass gave them a new and different insight into Douglass, that it changed the way they thought about him. Again, that's another circle closed in another arena. More, powerful magic!

Knowing that Lin-Manuel Miranda or Joyce Carol Oates or old school, Second Wave feminist Robin Morgan or some other celebrity has read -- or is at least aware of -- my book is rather fun and sparkly. Still, whoever put the book into their hands, like Henry, they are part of creating that magic, or making the book into a Real Live Person. You see, they aren't just doing something for me -- I'm happy, don't get me wrong there! -- but they see something in the book, in the ideas and the story about Douglass and especially about the women, and they want to pass it along to others.

They want their students to know about it, and they want someone who has access to a larger audience to know about it. That's the way knowledge spreads and the public becomes educated. That's really the whole point, isn't it? To create a virtuous, thinking citizenry fighting the forces of ignorance. That's the reason people write books or create art or teach in whatever sphere or engage in these regenerative act: to slake their curiosity and help others satisfy their and know more in the process about the world and the way it works.

The feedback lets you know that you aren't just sounding your barbaric yawp into the wilderness.

Back to Lin-Manuel Miranda. This missive to Henry and from Henry to me came at an auspicious moment: my birthday, which is tomorrow. Also for my birthday, an impending book contract for a classroom-use volume on the life and historiography of -- get this! -- Sally Hemings. I write this not as an expert on Hemings or Jefferson. That title I leave to the formidable Annette Gordon-Reed, to whom I bow down, and others such as John Kukla, Virgina Scharff, Cynthia Kierner, Catherine Kerrison, and Andew Burstein, among so many others. Instead, I write this as a teacher, introducing Hemings and the arguments surrounding her life and times to my students. It will be a short book of maybe two hundred pages text, and is exactly the type of book I wished that I had last fall when talking about this subject to my students who wanted to read about Hemings but took one look a the length of Hemingses of Monticello and said, "is there anything shorter?" (They would have LOVED Hemingses of Monticello, by the way; but still, you have to compete for their time.)

So, in closing, let's bring these two research projects together with this little musical jam that perhaps comes close to a hip-hop musical of Douglass: Epic Rap Battles of History, Thomas Jefferson vs Frederick Douglass.:

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


Douglass had been taken from his parents. His ancestors had been herded into cages, so was he. He and Anna Douglass broke the law to find a better life for themselves and their children. They defied the law to help people seek asylum in Canade. He searched for asylum himself.  His family had been in the United States, then the British North American colony of Maryland, since the 1730s at least. Yet, in 1858, the Supreme Court ruled that he and his entire family were not Americans nor should they be. Whole organizations were devoted to deporting people like him to Africa. When the Constitution granted him citizenship and seemed to protect his right to vote -- it couldn't bar him from voting because of his color or his previous condition of servitude, to be specific -- the federal government did nothing to stop states from finding their ways around the intent of those amendments. He and Helen Douglass had become aware of convict lease by the end of his life. Ida B. Wells made sure they knew of the malpractice of the law-enforcement system against black men in the South.

His was a tune that many people would like to say sounds old-timey, nothing to do with today.

People have plenty of opinions about Douglass and today's politics, not all of them good and quite a number of them would not even qualify as "half-baked." (Reason number 5088 that I'm not on Twitter.) The problem with discussing Douglass and politics is that many people like to use him to advance their own agenda. Kind of like the Bible or the Constitution, depending on what passages you pull out, you can draft Douglass into any camp that you want.

Words and ideologies have contexts and a person's can change over the course of a lifetime. Not only that, but a person who is radical on one issue can be conservative on another. Douglass, for instance, was very much a radical anti-racist as an abolitionist while at the same time engaged in the politics of respectability, which you can't really classify as conservative or liberal according to our understanding of the terms today.  Quite often he played with the contradictions.

Still, some things seem pretty clear. If you admire Frederick Douglass and what he did, but think that holding asylum-seekers in pens, separating them from their children, and telling naturalized or native-born women of color who, not incidentally, are representing their constituencies in Congress to leave the country is all fine, you might want to reexamine your reasons. Douglass isn't here to weigh in, but his life certainly gives us an idea.

Monday, 31 January [1887]: The National Archaelogical Museum of Naples

After an uneventful if mysteriously "strange sermon at the U.P. Church, on the greatness of man" on Sunday, the Douglasses met again with Eleanor Lewis and set off for the Museo Nazionale, now called the Museo Archeologico Nazionale or National Archaeological Museum. Then, as now, this is the museum to visit while in Naples, akin to the Uffizi in Florence; and the Baedeker of 1880 that the Douglasses carried with them referred to it as "The Museum" and gave a room-by-room description along with a map. Today, as then, Sundays are free. (Be aware of this that most museums in Italy are free on Sundays.)

While the museum has many exhibits, the main draw is and was the thing that Douglass mentioned: "A birds eye view of pictures, statuary and many objects of interest, taken from the ruins of Pompei and Herculanium."

The birds-eye view was actually a model, made in the 1850s, of the archeological digs as they stood at that time. The meticulous care with which the model-makers reproduced the mosaics and, more importantly, the frescoes on the walls, have served as some of the only records of those images because years -- centuries, now -- of exposure have caused them to deteriorate. Burial preserved the site, excavation restarted the processes of age.

Because of those processes, most of the artifacts and art were removed from the sites of the two cities and into this museum. (There's a longer history to that, but you can refer to Mary Beard's engaging work for more on the subject.)  "The perfection of some of these in form and color and utility was remarkable considering their antiquity," Douglass commented in his diary. "In some respects they transcended modern art."

He was not wrong. I'm not sure what pieces he may have seen, but here are some samples.

The expression on the donkey's face!

Evidence of writing. 
Also, note the head scarf, continuing Douglass's observations from the train.

This is a famous picture, so seeing it is like seeing a celebrity. More than that, taken with the image above, you get a sense of the range of phenotypes, or skin color and hair textures -- the markers of what we call "race" today -- that existed in the Roman Empire. This piqued Douglass's curiosity as he travelled southward through Europe.


A miniature skeleton.

A miniature Isis Fortuna

A massive Hercules. The copy in the background is modern, as in the past decade. An artist did this big performance thing in which he made replicas of various artifacts from Pompeii and blew them up with various colored gunpowder at the Pompeii amphitheater. He had some blah-blah-blah-dialogue-with-the-past artist statement, but, really, I think he just wanted to blow shit up.

A sample of a glass bottle still containing the remnants of oil.

A sample of a glass bottle melted by Vesuvius's heat.

Another celebrity siting. This is in every World Civilizations textbook I've seen. It is a mosaic that covered a floor in a Pompeiian villa and supposedly depicts Alexander the Great defeating the Persian king Darius.

Darius in mosaic.The detail and expression are amazing, rendered in tiny flecks of stone.

Alexander the Great in mosaic. Even the horse has an expression.
More reminders of mortality.

From the base of a mosaic column. Those are actual shells.

Detail on a column.
There was one room that Douglass probably did not visit, and they did have it in those days because the Baedeker mentions it. You see, the Romans were earthy people, not as uptight about sexuality or nudity as later generations, and certainly not as constricted as those in the nineteenth century. The were, after all, people who considered enormous male genitalia to be good luck symbols.  The founders of the museum in the eighteenth century already began to realize that certain people, especially ladies, did not have the sensibility for some of the artifacts. So, they took the most obvious ones and put them in a "Secret Room" or "Reserved Cabinet," "Raccolta Pornografica" in Italian, according to Baedeker, "to which men only are admitted." The Baedeker describes it as containing "mural and other paintings not adapted for public exhibition, and numerous bronzes, some of them of considerable artistic merit." (That sounds very much like the descriptions of Playboy that praise it for the articles.) They let women in these days and, let me tell you, the Romans were all about the dick. It was quite tedious.

The room is now called the Secret Room, "Gabinetto Segretto." 

The equivalent of lawn ornaments.

This was carved into the side of a building. 
Today, the room lies beyond the mosaics, near the one depicting Alexander and Darius. In the 1880s, according to the Baedeker, this room lay next to one in which gold and silver object, including jewelry, and cameos were on display. That is, things that ladies would have liked to have seen.

Douglass was there with ladies and he himself was no libertine, especially given his reaction to meeting Victoria Woodhull a couple of months later when they returned to Rome. He and they probably averted their eyes from this Racolta.

As for the rest of  the collections, he concluded, "The musium is something to be seen not once but many times in order to comprehend its many attractions[.]" Certainly going to it before and after seeing the two sites would make the visit deeper and richer than a Sunday afternoon.