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How Frederick Douglas became "Black"

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MessagePosté le: Sam 20 Déc 2008, 01:48    Sujet du message: How Frederick Douglas became "Black" Répondre en citant

Excerpt from Franck Sweet Essay tracing the evolution of Douglass' identity from biracial to black due to the lack of a biracial identity in the North.

The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the NorthEssays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
August 1, 2005When Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey extricated himself from slavery, he hoped to become a member of mainstream society, as had other former slaves before him.1 He changed his surname to “Douglass,” after a hero in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. He reasoned that, “the basic characteristic of Scott’s Douglas is his unflinching fortitude in adversities brought about by the wrongful loss of his patrimony.”2Strictly speaking, Douglass’s “patrimony” was the legacy of his slave overseer father, Aaron Anthony. Rejection by his father’s society is what Douglass meant by “wrongful loss.” His criticism of his father in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) was not directed at the man’s “race” nor at his “racism.” Instead, Douglass’s indictment of his father was about Anthony’s repudiating his own children by hiding behind a wicked law that, in contrast with the French and Spanish laws once enforced in the lower South, allowed him to disown his slave offspring.3
Douglass considered himself to be neither White nor Black, but both. His multiracial self-identity showed in his first autobiography. Introducing his father in Narrative, Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man.” In this text, his mother was a stranger whom he had never seen in daylight, he could not picture her face, and he was unmoved by news of her death.4 Not only did Douglass adopt a fictional Scottish hero’s name, he emphasized his (perhaps imagined) Scots descent through his father. When visiting Great Britain in 1845-47, Douglass extended his stay in Scotland. He immersed himself in Scottish music and ballads, which he played on the violin for the rest of his life. Having plunged into a Scottish ethnic identity, Douglass wrote to his (then) friend, William Lloyd Garrison, “If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient ‘black Douglass’ [sic] once met his foes... you would see a great change in me!”5 Upon arriving in Nantucket, Douglass hoped to represent a blending of both endogamous groups, a man who was half-White and half-Black:

Young, ardent, and hopeful, I entered upon this new life in the full gush of unsuspecting enthusiasm. The cause was good, the men engaged in it were good, the means to attain its triumph, good.... For a time, I was made to forget that my skin was dark and my hair crisped.6

But acceptance by White society was out of reach for Douglass. He discovered that, in the North, there was no such thing as a man who was half-Black. White ships’ caulkers in New Bedford denied him a chance to work at his craft because in their eyes he was all Black.7 When he joined the Garrisonians on a boat to an abolitionist convention in Nantucket, and a squabble broke out because the White abolitionists demanded that the Black abolitionists take lesser accommodations, Douglass found himself classified as Black by his friends. Later in Nantucket, Douglass so impressed the Garrisonians with his public speaking that abolitionist Edmund Quincy exchanged reports with others that Douglass was an articulate public speaker, “for a nigger.”8 Repeatedly, Douglass tried to present himself as an intermediary between America’s two endogamous groups. But the Garrisonians made it clear that he was expected to present himself as nothing more than an intelligent “Negro.” He was told to talk only about the evils of slavery and ordered to stop talking about the endogamous color line. “Give us the facts [about being a slave]. We will take care of the [racial] philosophy.” They also ordered him to “leave a little plantation speech” in his accent.9 In their own words, they wanted to display a smart “nigger,” but not too smart.
Douglass’s cruelest discovery came after he broke with the Garrisonians and went out on his own. Abolitionist friends of both endogamous groups had warned him that there was nothing personal in how Garrison had used him. The public did not want an intermediary; they wanted an articulate Black. Douglass soon discovered that his friends were right. His newspaper, The North Star, failed to sell because it had no market; White Yankees wanted to read White publications and Black Yankees wanted to read Black ones. Indeed, Black political leaders resented Douglass’s distancing himself from Black ethno-political society. There was no room in Massachusetts for a man who straddled the color line.
Douglass dutifully reinvented himself. He applied himself to learning Black Yankee culture. “He began to build a closer relationship with... Negro leaders and with the Negro people themselves, to examine the whole range of Negro problems, and to pry into every facet of discrimination.”10 Eight months later, The North Star’s circulation was soaring and Black leader James McCune Smith wrote to Black activist Gerrit Smith:

You will be surprised to hear me say that only since his Editorial career has he seen to become a colored man! I have read his paper very carefully and find phrase after phrase develop itself as in one newly born among us.11

From that day on, Douglass never looked back. The public wanted him to be hyper-Black and so hyper-Black he became. His later autobiographies reveal the change.12 Narrative (1845) says that his “father was a white man,” My Bondage and My Freedom (1854) says that his father “was shrouded in mystery” and “nearly white,” and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882-1892) says flatly, “of my father I know nothing.”13 Narrative says that his mother was a stranger whose death did not affect him, and Bondage and Freedom reports that he was “deeply attached to her,” Life and Times says that “her image is ineffably stamped upon my memory,” and describes her death with “great poignancy and sorrow.”14
And yet, although he donned a public persona of extreme Blackness, he continued to see himself as half White Scottish in his private life. When he eventually married Helen Pitts, a woman of the White endogamous group, even close friends were bothered by the mismatch between the public and private Douglasses.15 In a speech in 1886 Jacksonville, Florida, Douglass justified his intermarriage on the grounds of his own multiracial self-identity. According to James Weldon Johnson:

Douglass spoke, and moved a large audience of white and colored people by his supreme eloquence. ... Douglass was speaking in the far South, but he spoke without fear or reservation. One statement in particular that he made, I now wonder if any Negro speaker today, under the same circumstances, would dare to make, and, if he did, what the public reaction would be; Douglass, in reply to the current criticisms regarding his second marriage, said, “In my first marriage I paid my compliments to my mother’s race; in my second marriage I paid my compliments to the race of my father.”16
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MessagePosté le: Sam 20 Déc 2008, 01:48    Sujet du message: Publicité

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