Posts Tagged NY Times
“Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” cited 8 times in Bancroft Prize for History awardee (NY Times)
A mammoth biography of Frederick Douglass and a new study of the 17th-century colonial American conflict known as King Philip’s War have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.
David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,” published by Simon and Schuster, was cited for offering “a definitive portrait” of the 19th-century former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator “in all his fullness and imperfection, his intellectual gifts and emotional needs.”
Lisa Brooks’s “Our Beloved Kin,” published by Yale University Press, was praised for how it “imaginatively illuminates submerged indigenous histories,” drawing readers into “a complex world of tensions, alliances and betrayals” that fueled the conflict between Native Americans in New England and European colonists and their Indian allies.
The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft.
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.”
Spoiler Alert: In the pursuit of pre-ordained film awards and potential box office receipts, famed director Steven Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner have minimized and distorted, intentional or not, the historic self-agency of black Washingtonians in “Lincoln,” according to a recent New York Times Op-Ed.
Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern University, writes that for decades “historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation.”
The voices of radical Republicans, such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade, were in Lincoln’s ear advocating for the rights of black folks, as well as black folks themselves such as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne and Frederick Douglass.
In fact, Spielberg, who’s been working on this project for many years, originally wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, which was dramatized at Ford’s Theatre last year.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Kushner came aboard ‘Lincoln’ after a few other screenwriters had tried and failed to deliver a script to Spielberg’s liking — one early take focused on Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass.”
But the script was flipped. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a confirmed plagiarist, and her 2006 book “Team of Rivals” (which has now been re-released as a “Film Tie-In Edition”) became the guiding historic source. Douglass, says Masur who saw a screening in Chicago, is now “nowhere to be seen or heard.”
What the movie is left with, is by all accounts, a captivating performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and strong supporting roles by Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Fields as Mary Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Hal Halbrook as Francis Preston Blair (the founder of Silver Spring), and others.
Leaders of Washington’s black community and intimates of the Lincoln White House, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade are portrayed but, as Masur notes, come across as though they’re fresh from “central casting.”
The film tells an incomplete story, Masur contends.
“The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.
Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.
In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.”
In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. I briefly touch on what Masur recognizes; when Washington swelled with “contrabands,” it was the black churches and their parishioners that took the lead in forming “Relief Associations.”
According to records of the Christian Recorder from November 1862 the Union Bethel Church (later Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church) announced, “Brethren and Sisters: We appeal to you for aid in behalf of our poor, destitute, and suffering people from the South, who have come amongst us destitute of all the comforts of life, and in the most abject poverty and want, from the hoary-headed old man and woman, to the infant at the breast.”
Washington’s black community, largely free persons of color, did not sit idle waiting for the omnipotent benevolence of President Lincoln; the paternalistic spirit of which is captured in the Emancipation Statue at Lincoln Park in Northeast.
There’s plenty of good scholarship on how Washington’s black community organized to advocate and prepare for emancipation. Unfortunately, Spielberg, Kushner, Goodwin, and others who ushered “Lincoln” to the box office seem to have been oblivious.
Washington Post, “D.C.’s Frederick Douglass statue headed to Capitol” [9.12.2012]
New York Times, “Washington to get Bronze Representative in Capitol” [9.13.2012]
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, “Douglass statue to be displayed in Capitol” [9.13.2012]
WAMU 88.5 FM, “D.C.’s Frederick Douglass Statue Will Move To Capitol” [9.14.2012]
Douglass raised funds and donated his money to Howard. He received an honorary doctorate from the university. He testified before Congress advocating for the university. While in Washington Douglass got around town from City Hall to the White House to the US Capitol to local meetings on District Voting Rights. Throughout his various commitments to family, lecturing, and political appointments, from 1871 until his death in 1895 Douglass was closely affiliated with the college on the hilltop. His relationship and decades of service to Howard University is without question one of the most important dynamics of his lasting legacy in Washington, D.C.
Washington, Feb. 15. – On the occasion, yesterday, of the presentation of a steel engraving of Carpenter’s [ED: Francis Bicknell Carpenter] picture of the “Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation” to the Howard University, Frederick Douglass, among others, made a speech, in which he said: “Among the faults of his people were their self-indulgence, love of ease, and improvidence. They must learn to spend their earnings judiciously. If one can’t get up, he will be helped down. They had a fair chance to get up. He was on his way to Congress and he thought that if the negro could stand Congress, Congress out to stand the negro. The colored men had been forced up by abnormal conditions, but they were coming up gradually by their own exertions.
President Hayes made a speech, in which he said:
“I quite agree with all that has been said, yet it occured to me that Mr. Douglass made a modest estimate of his race when he said: “They don’t build up; they don’t build the domes you see;’ but who did build them? Such men as Adams and Sumner made their fame by their speeches under that dome and the speech your colored brother made made us is better than making domes; but that is not my message. I would say the wisdom, the righteousness, and the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s act of emancipation no man will deny. That is has conferred infinite blessings on our country, on both races, and on the world, very few question. This estimate of the act and of its results will not be changed by the good conduct or the bad conduct of either race; but it is said that the greatness of the blessing conferred on the colored race depends on their conduct. What they most need is what Burns calls “The glorious privilege of being independent.” What this requires is the willingness to labor, and the prudence and self-denial to save the fruits of labor. My young colored friends, let this, then, be among your good resolutions: “I will work and I will save, to the end I may become independent.”