Posts Tagged Egypt

Letter to New Yorker; Important factual correction needed; “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass” in October 15, 2018 edition

Cover of The New Yorker's first issue in 1925 with illustration depicting iconic character Eustace TilleyOctober 15, 2018

David Remnick: Editor, The New Yorker
Adam Gopnik: Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Andrew Boynton, Copy Editor, The New Yorker
Team of Copy Editors, The New Yorker

On October 10, 2018 I was alerted via text message by a member of the family of Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass about Adam Gopnik’s article, “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass” in the October 15, 2018 print edition of The New Yorker.

In a forthcoming letter I will address concerns members of the Douglass Family and Bailey Tribe have expressed to me regarding the “speculative history” Mr. Gopnik posits in “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass.”

However, this letter is prompted by a blaring and outstanding factual error in Mr. Gopnik’s article.

In the the last sentence of the third paragraph it reads:

And then, in 1881, when he was in his sixties, he published “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” in which this man, who had watched the ships go by in the Chesapeake Bay with a desperate sense of disbelief that anyone or anything in the world could be so free, was able to report on his journeys to Cairo and Paris and his reception in both as a man of state and of letters.


This sentence is false.

Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass, America’s Pharaoh, first visited Paris in 1886 and Cairo in 1887. I have researched these visits and published facts and particulars about these visits on the blog.

Dr. Douglass does not detail these visits in the 1881 version of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass as it would have been a metaphysical impossibility as well a rupture of the space-time continuum.

Dr. Douglass reported on his journeys to Cairo and Paris in his 1892 version of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Nothing less than a correction to the online article and a print correction in the next available edition of The New Yorker will properly uplift and correct the fallen history of Dr. Douglass in the bicentennial year of his birth.

Respectfully,

John Muller
author, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (The History Press, 2012)

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Dr. Frederick Douglass uplifted on floor of House of Representatives as representative intellect of descendants of ancient Egyptians, source for Greek civilization, and possessing oratorical ability equal to any national legislator. [“The Slave Question.” Speech of Mr. J. G. Palfrey, 26 January, 1848. 30th Congress, 1st Session]

J G Parley

Before his thirtieth birthday Dr. Frederick Douglass was uplifted on the floor of the House of Representatives as a representative intellect of the descendants of ancient Egyptians, the source for Greek civilization, and possessing oratorical ability equal to any national legislator.

It is a new era in Douglassonian Studies. Study up, yung sons. The old, tired tropes and racist speculations will be challenged and put down at every utterance.

In the Bicentennial of the birth of Dr. Douglass it is time to finally tell his life story in full.

For. Once. And. For. All. Times.

The Slave Question.

Speech of Mr. J. G. Palfrey,
Of Massachusetts,
In The House of Representatives,
January 28, 1848

On The Political Aspect of the Slave Question.

“… Again; the gentleman urged, to the point, the natural inferiority of the negro race. He has no doubt examined, and knows how to expose, the seeming paradox of those ingenious men who have held that the balance of power was shifted, and the sceptre of the world passed from the colored to the white race, some twenty-four centuries ago, at the capture of Babylon by the Persians; and I presume he decides that question rightly.  [Mr. Clingman interrupted, and was understood to say he had referred to the Egyptians, and relied on the formation of the Egyptian skull.]

The gentlemen speaks of the Egyptians. Undoubtedly he has attended to the curious hint in Herodotus, bearing that question. The gentlemen quotes Appian, a writer not commonly in the hands of professed scholars. He is a reader of Polybius, and has weighed his merits and those of the other great masters that department of composition in such exact critical scales as to feel justified in placing him at the head of the list in respect to political sagacity.

He cannot have overlooked that singular passage in so common an author as Herodotus, in which the old chronicler has been thought to say, that the ancient Egyptians, the remote source perhaps of Greek civilization, were woolly-headed negroes. I will not defend that interpretation of his words. But it is no invention of any of your high-flying abolitionists of the present day; it have been received by grave and plodding English and German doctors, who read, and pondered, and smoke, and annotated, long before, such a lusus nature as an American abolitionist was ever heard of.

The gentleman has of course determined the complexion of the great captain of antiquity, the Carthaginian Hannibal, and knows how far it resembled that of the Lybians and Nubians whom he led to twenty years’ triumph over the sharp-peaked eagles of Rome. He sees how to dispose of the phenomenon of the French mullato, Alexandre Dumas, that miracle of prolific genius.

He can show that no stress is to be laid on such a case as that of the American Frederick Douglass, now of Rochester, New York, ten years ago a wretched slave, picking up scraps of leaves of the Bible in the gutters of Baltimore, to teach himself to read, then working three years on the wharves on New Bedford, without a day’s schooling I presume in his life, yet now speaking and writing the English language with a force and eloquence which, I hesitate not to say, would do no discredit to any gentlemen on this floor.

SOURCE:

Appendix to The Congressional Globe for the First Session, Thirtieth Congress: Containing Speeches and Important State Papers (Vol. 17). City of Washington, Printed at the Office of Blair & Rives, 1848.

The Slave Question.” Speech of Mr. J. G. Palfrey, 26 January, 1848.
30th Congress, 1st Session, p. 133 – 137.

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Video: “Frederick Douglass and Islam” (America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, Feb., 24, 2018)

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New York Times: Frederick Douglass’s Fight Against Scientific Racism (Eric Herschthal, Feb., 22, 2018)

The 200th birthday of one of America’s greatest thinkers, Frederick Douglass, is being celebrated this month. Douglass is remembered as many things: a fugitive slave who gained his freedom, an abolitionist, an advocate for women’s rights, a gifted writer and orator. But we should also remember him as someone whose insights about scientific theories of race are every bit as relevant in our era as they were when he wrote them.

When Douglass rose to prominence, in the 1840s, he was living in a world just as excited and anxious about his era’s new inventions, like the railroad and the telegraph, as we are about modern-day innovation. But he understood that the ends to which science could be used were forever bound up with the moral choices of its practitioners. “Scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, as well as to instruct,” he wrote in 1854, “and even unconsciously to themselves (sometimes) sacrifice what is true to what is popular.”

That statement was part of a lecture in which he attacked one of the most prominent scientific fields of the antebellum era: ethnology, or what was sometimes called “the science of race.” Though often dismissed today as pseudoscience, at the time Douglass was writing, it was considered legitimate. The most accomplished scientists engaged in it, and the public eagerly consumed it.

Ethnology was not embraced just by Southerners who supported slavery. Its most important theorists lived in the North: one, Louis Agassiz, taught at Harvard; the other, Samuel George Morton, was president of one of the nation’s leading scientific societies, in Philadelphia.

Agassiz and Morton rejected the 18th-century view of race, which held that all human beings descended from a single pair and that physical differences emerged because of changes in the natural environment.

Instead, they contended that black and white people were created separately and that black people were inferior, a theory called polygenism. As Northerners, Agassiz and Morton went out of their way to say that polygenism in no way justified slavery. But they did not have to: Southern scientists eagerly used it to condone slavery, and even white Northerners opposed to slavery found it helpful in promoting Northern segregation or arguing for emancipation coupled with colonization — removing black Americans once they were free.

In preparation for the 1854 lecture, Douglass read dozens of books on ethnology, then dismantled polygenists’ claims one by one. Among the most important to Douglass was Morton’s claim that ancient Egyptians were white. To support his claim that black people were inferior, Morton needed to explain away the fact that ancient Egyptians were Africans, since if they were, it meant that people of African descent had the potential for similar greatness. As proof, Morton noted that the Bible made no mention of Egyptians’ color.

Douglass would have none of it.

He cited text after text, all written by respected European scientists, that noted that ancient Egyptians bore a striking resemblance to modern-day Africans. But more important, he argued that racial descriptors were not mentioned in the Bible because, at that historical moment, race did not exist. It was, as we now say, a social construct, something better understood as a product of history rather than of science.

When Morton assumed that the ancient Israelites, who he believed were white, would have never married ancient Egyptians if they were black, he failed to realize that racial prejudice was a “genuine American feeling,” Douglass wrote. “It assumes that a black skin in the East excites the same prejudice which we see here in the West.” Douglass was saying that we learn racism — we are not born with it.

Of course, engaging with ethnology on its own terms was a dangerous game. It sometimes meant that Douglass perpetuated scientific ways of thinking about race rather than simply dismantling its logic and insisting on race as a product of history. He borrowed from the ethnological theories of his friend James McCune Smith, a fellow black abolitionist and the nation’s first credentialed black physician, to argue that both black and white people would be improved by racial mixing.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss these ideas as merely the result of Douglass’s own mixed racial heritage — his father, possibly his owner, was white — or as a backhanded insult to black history, to black culture. They were always written in the service of a clear political agenda, one that was radical for his time: full black integration rather than segregation.

In 1887, Douglass traveled to Egypt and published another essay about how the ancient Egyptians were, in fact, African. “I have long been interested in ethnology,” he wrote, and “I have wanted the evidence of greatness under the colored skin to meet and beat back the charge of natural, original and permanent inferiority.” He found it in the ancient pyramids and the majestic sphinxes, with their undeniably African features.

But even as Douglass refused to allow racist scientific theories to go unchallenged, he always understood that science was not the antidote to white people’s racism. There were only so many facts you could give to prove black people’s humanity.

In 1893, two years before his death, he was disturbed by the way the nation’s white scientific elite had represented people of African descent at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian helped design the exhibition, which mirrored what they took to be humankind’s racial progress from savage to civilized.

The pavilions for Haiti and for African nations, designed as primitive huts, came first. As you walked through the exhibition, you eventually crossed a bridge into the “White City,” which housed marbled pavilions for white nations, showcasing their marvelous scientific inventions.

One day was set aside for black Americans to present their own culture, and the press came ready to lampoon the event. White vendors had their fun too, bringing watermelons by the cartload. Some black leaders called for a boycott, but Douglass insisted that black people engage — after all, here was a chance to showcase black excellence.

But Douglass also wanted to set the record straight about race, or rather, about racism. This time, he did not bother making a scientific argument about black equality. Instead, he got to the heart of the matter and wanted the clutch of white reporters at the event to listen closely, to print it in all their papers.

The problem was not with black people, he said, it was with white people. If they loved their democracy as much as they said they did, they would stop looking to science to make excuses for their own failure to treat black Americans as equal citizens. As he put it: “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.”

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Eric Herschthal, a fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, is writing a book on science and the antislavery movement.

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Peace Islam: Frederick Douglass visits Mohameden College (Al-Azhar University) in Cairo, Egypt

FDCC_Mr Muhammad speaking_12.9.17

Mr. Amir Muhammad of the America’s Islamic Heritage Museum speaks at Frederick Douglass Community Conference. William Alston-El serving as Grand Marshal.

Saturday, 26 February [1887]

Went this morning to Mohameden College where twelve thousand pupils
studying the Caron and preparing to teache its doctrines to the benighted sons of men. I saw about two thousand of them in the court and college building reading their morning lesson. They wore the peculiar dress and Turban of the Mahomedan and presented a striking spectacle. If sincerity is any proof of the truth of their creed, they certainly give that proof-but alas! Sincerity is no proof. The most revolting imposture has been defended by equal earnestness and sincerity. The followers of the prophet can pray as loudly and point to as many miracles as the Christian can, they even exceed the Christian in religious attention to ceremony. We also went to see the Mohamden Bible house,-  where you may see the Coran in all languages. It is a great sight. Two hundred millions of people are said to receive this Sacred Book, the Coran.

SOURCE:

Frederick Douglass Diary (Tour of Europe and Africa) – Library of Congress

 

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