Saturday, November 5, 2011

Frederick Douglass

The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is an immensely powerful read and you cannot escape from the oppression described in the text; it overpowers you with its physicality and its brutal recollection of every physical, mental and social indignity inherent in the history of slavery. It is a powerful indictment of the role of the individual white man and woman in the perpetuation of slavery, and of their absolute complicity in the barbaric practices and torments institutionalized in that sub-human system.

It is, however, interesting to me that historical characters are so complex and multidimensional, and this complexity is often subsumed by their progressive historical personae. Douglass, for example, had a very estranged and, to my eyes, highly problematic relationship with his wife.

Having helped him establish himself after his escape from slavery, putting her life and livelihood on the line, Anna Murray, a poor laundress, found herself distanced from Douglass, who, it is said, found her lack of education incommensurate with his newly-found intellectual, abolitionist circles. It is said he had affairs with an English abolitionist and a German-Jewish journalist, the latter of whom he invited to live in his own house. The elitist German treated his wife, who obviously lived and worked under the same roof, with the utmost contempt. She revered Douglass, loving him and expecting him to forsake his marriage for her; and she dehumanized Anna, refusing to acknowledge her position as a fellow human being and as a woman. The illiterate Anna's blackness served as a source of disdain, whereas Douglass' was celebrated as the harbinger of a new racial equality. Douglass allowed and actively participated in the dehumanization of his wife at the alter of high Emancipation intellectualism.

It is not for us to judge historical characters for their lives and decisions anachronistically. However, let us not forget that they led very human lives with very human flaws and weaknesses, and no narrative is as self-sufficient as it claims to be.

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