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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of his time

A long time ago, I was in Los Angeles researching the experiences of runaway slaves on New Bedford whaling ships.  It was for background to my book In the Wake of Madness, the troubling story of a homicidal whaling captain, who beat his steward, a young runaway slave, to a slow and agonizing death.  And, while consulting with Kathryn Grover, the author of The Fugitives' Gibraltar, Escaping  Salves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts, I became intrigued with one of the most famous runaway slaves of all, Frederick Douglass.

He became my hero.  In short, I needed a copy of his memoir, Narrative of the Life Of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in a hurry.

Friends dropped me at what must be the largest pre-loved books store in the world, at Long Beach.  It resembled an aircraft hangar.  Maybe it was an aircraft hangar.  In the doorway, there was a small desk, with a young man who appeared to know where all the books were.  A dim, shadowy vastness stretched behind him.

I asked for Black History.  He directed me to the farthest, darkest corner, which felt, I swear, a mile away.  And as I threaded my way through the loaded shelves, I realized I was being trailed by four young Black men.

When I stopped, having found the right section, they stopped.  I turned.  We all looked at each other.

I said, "Can I help?"

One young man said, "We just want to know why a white lady like you wants to read about Black men like us."

So I told them about Frederick Douglass.  They had never heard of him.  They were enthralled.  Then, when I had finally finished, they thanked me very politely, and went away.

I've thought about that often, wondering if learning something about this American hero had any effect on their lives.

Today, I was reminded of it.  The New York Review of Books, in its review of the best articles of the year, includes a discussion of two books about "the Mysterious, Brilliant Frederick Douglass".

It begins:  Some years ago, after giving a talk at a college in Louisiana, I was approached at the podium by a middle-aged white man who said, with a genial smile, “Since you mentioned Frederick Douglass, I thought you’d be interested that my family used to own him.” His matter-of-factness was a shock to this Yankee clueless in Dixie. I couldn’t tell if I was meant to congratulate or, perhaps, commiserate, as if his forebears had misplaced some rare collectible. So I said something lame like, “Well, that’s quite something, thanks for letting me know.”

Wow.  That's quite something.  Was the man proud of being a descendant of the man who had owned this hero?   I don't know how he felt, but I have a good idea of how the writer felt, having had much the same experience when I met the very polite and pleasant descendants of the homicidal whaling captain.

But that is another story.

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