Harrison Middleton University

The Trouble With History

The Trouble With History

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 14, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The trouble with history is that someone is always writing it. By that I mean, that a single person gives their perspective of an event or series of events, which is an important idea to hold in mind when discussing historical documents. We began Harrison Middleton University’s current series, Discussions in Equity, with Frederick Douglass’s “My Escape from Slavery” and Martin Luther King, Jr’s “After Desegregation, What?”. Both of these essays address narratives of the time that they were written in, but they also offer timeless advice.

When looking at “My Escape from Slavery” by Frederick Douglass, someone commented that this text did not paint a positive picture of tradesmen. And ever since this comment, I have been thinking about the ways in which historical narratives form a snapshot of history. Our discussion did not really address the comment, so I would like to elaborate on it in today’s blog. The Douglass section in question reads:

“Notwithstanding the just and humane sentiment of New Bedford three and forty years ago, the place was not entirely free from race and color prejudice. The good influence of the Roaches, Rodmans, Arnolds, Grinnells, and Robesons did not pervade all classes of its people. The test of the real civilization of the community came when I applied for work at my trade, and then my repulse was emphatic and decisive. It so happened that Mr. Rodney French, a wealthy and enterprising citizen, distinguished as an anti-slavery man, was fitting out a vessel for a whaling voyage, upon which there was a heavy job of calking and coppering to be done. I had some skill in both branches, and applied to Mr. French for work. He, generous man that he was, told me he would employ me, and I might go at once to the vessel. I obeyed him, but upon reaching the float-stage, where others [sic] calkers were at work, I was told that every white man would leave the ship, in her unfinished condition, if I struck a blow at my trade upon her. This uncivil, inhuman, and selfish treatment was not so shocking and scandalous in my eyes at the time as it now appears to me. Slavery had inured me to hardships that made ordinary trouble sit lightly upon me. Could I have worked at my trade I could have earned two dollars a day, but as a common laborer I received but one dollar.”

I do not question the truth of this event, but I want to use it to explore potential issues with memoir writing. First, Douglass mentions that 43 years separate the event with his writing it down. Earlier in the text, he noted that he waited a span of 40 years before writing this account because he did not want to endanger lives. So, while that gap is understandable, he must rely upon his memory of the event, which is always problematic. Having said that, however, this event exemplifies a clear, concrete instance of institutionalized racism, which can be useful even still today.

Furthermore, historical narratives are not perfect and no man’s account will be perfect. However, “My Escape from Slavery,” gives us what no one else can (or could). So few people were able (for many reasons) to narrate their stories of freedom. Douglass’s version offers a vital account of the African-American experience which moves from slavery into freedom. His account, with all its flaws and imperfections, is no more flawed than any other narrative, but it does offer what few can offer. The important takeaway, for me at least, is that this scenario between the tradesmen and Douglass repeats over and over again. Just as Douglass had earned a job, his effort was once again sidelined by unforeseen obstacles. His narrative focuses on the idea that, in his seemingly new-found freedom, obstacles hid in unlikely places, and moreso for someone whose mere existence is a challenge to another way of life. His journey to the North brought freedom in word, but not always in actuality. It is vital for communities to investigate this kind of injustice.

Another part of his narrative that I am curious about is the mention of his first wife. When Douglass arrived in New York and found a little stability, he asked his future wife, Anna Murray, to join him. She made her way to New York on her own money, as she was already free and able to work. In his narrative, though, Douglass chose not to mention that she had assisted him financially or that she paid her own way. I understand his reasoning for this decision and see how it fits into the lens of the era in which he was writing. However, as society shifts, I find it necessary to add this context. Their daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague, also wrote a memoir (published in 1900) about Anna Murray Douglass. It offers more details about her mother’s story. Sprague mentions that, in addition to earning her own salary and raising children, Anna Murray encouraged and assisted in Frederick’s freedom. She even provided him with clothing and money for his travels north, though none of that assistance is mentioned in his narrative.

I can think of many reasons why Douglass wrote “My Escape from Slavery” as he did, and for me, most of it boils down to audience. He intended to share his stories for a purpose, and for this reason he selected details to both include and exclude. I think it is always beneficial to add research to these readings when possible. So, as for the question of the tradesmen in Douglass’s narrative, I wonder what other research exists on trades from the early 1800s and how it might pair with Douglass’s experience.

Thanks to those who joined me for the first of our Equity Discussions. If you are interested in joining, email as****@hm*.edu. Thank you!

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1 thought on “The Trouble With History”

  1. I think it’s also important to consider this work in the context of Douglass’s other writings. His oration, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?", makes a natural complement to King’s "Dream" speech. While Douglass’s address is in no way intended to be objective or unbiased, it does present a powerful rhetorical moment in history, just like Douglass’s other writings. The author doesn’t present himself as a journalist who might offer a fair, balanced, and totally accurate portrayal of the times. Instead, he occupies the role of advocate and activist. As one giving voice to strife, he uses a style that is suitable for his purpose and audience, and that style is only somewhat reliant upon absolute facts.

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