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It’s A Small World: Mapping Frederick Douglass

“Two years after the death of Mrs. Lucretia, Master Thomas married his second wife. Her name was Rowena Hamilton, the eldest daughter of Mr. William Hamilton, a rich slaveholder on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, who lived about five miles from St. Michael’s, the then place of my master’s residence” (117).
“The people of the north, and free people generally, I think, have less attachment to the places where they are born and brought up, than have the slaves. Their freedom to go and come, to be here and there, as they list, prevents any extravagant attachment to any one particular place, in their case. On the other hand, the slave is a fixture; he has no choice, no goal, no destination; but is pegged down to a single spot, and must take root here, or nowhere” (113).

map 1

A. St. Michael’s, Maryland – the location of Douglass’s home with Master Thomas Auld and his second wife, Rowena Williams
B. Miles River – “Miles river was broad, and its oyster fishing grounds were extensive; and the fisherman were out, often, all day, and a part of the night…” (120)

map 2

C. Baltimore, Maryland – Douglass’s previous home
D. Current Tuckahoe State Park –Douglass identifies his birthplace as Tuckahoe, Maryland in the first chapter

When I chose to map this area, I hoped to be able to identify the land of Mr. William Hamilton. According to Douglass’s description it was a mere five miles away from the town of St. Michael’s Maryland. However, I was unable to find any record of this land in my research. This may be due to my failure as a researcher. Although Douglass had no actual connection to this land or William Hamilton, it is fascinating to think that people’s worlds were so small.
In fact, it is interesting to look at a map and realize what short distances Frederick Douglass was being forced to move in comparison to the effect the movements had on his emotional and political life. The descriptions of the stress these various movements put on Douglass created an image in my mind of much vaster movements. Of course being forcibly removed from one’s loved ones and roots with the knowledge that being reunited is extremely unlikely would be stressful on anyone. Being able to visualize how truly close Douglass always was to the roots from which he was disconnected without the opportunity to return freely helps me understand, at least to some degree, some of the emotional torture to which the objects of the slavery system were subjected.

 

Keywords in Context: White

This electronic text analysis tool is pretty cool. The ability to look at a text’s most frequently-used terms allows me to consider the text in a different way. Of course, the top words in any text are going to be “and” and “the” (or variations of these words), but once you identify words that are used frequently and have a certain level of weight to the topic, the tool becomes really interesting. The first narrative, that of Will Adams, used the word “nigger” eighteen times, “massa” thirteen times, and “white” nine times.

Compared with the narrative of William Adams, which only uses the word “black” six times and only in reference to cats, Will Adams seems to have a greater awareness of race and racial tension. For example, using the word trends tool, I realized that the frequency of the word “white” was on trend with the frequency of the word “nigger.” I then used the keywords in context tool to see that the word “white” tends to be used in conjunction with “nigger”:

chart

“The carpet-baggers ruint the niggers and the white men couldn’t do
a thing with them, so they got up the Ku Klux and stirs up the world.
Them carpet-baggers come round larnin’ niggers to sass the white folks what done fed them. They come to pa with that talk and he told them, ‘Listen, white folks, you is gwine start a graveyard if you come round here teachin’ niggers to sass white folks.”

White people are referred to as they relate to black people and Adams’ experience as a black man. Of course this is natural, but it is not the way I see the world and thus not the way I interpret literature.

The Language of Slave Narratives

When I was reading the slave narratives, I found the language challenging, but it raised questions about the intentions of the interviewers. Our in-class discussion regarding language centered on the challenges we faced as readers and the significant educational disadvantages of slaves. While it is true that slaves were uneducated and spoke very distinct dialects of English, it was by choice that the interviewers and publishers transcribed the former slaves’ speech with non-standard English grammar as well as intentional misspellings.

Why did they choose to portray former slaves in this manner? To what end? An innocent view of the interviewers is that they simply wanted to create an accurate picture of these former slaves, the way they felt about slavery, and the way they spoke. However, most of these narratives paint a much prettier picture of slavery than what is seen in the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs. Of course, we spoke in class about the psychological states of the former slaves in comparison with Douglass and Jacobs as well as the fact that they might have felt compelled toward dishonesty by the situation of being interviewed by a dominant and potentially threatening class of people.

Maybe it is a little cynical of me to think that the white interviewers wanted to continue the portrayal of slavery as not so bad and the former slaves as a lesser class of people. In fact, they may have believed this to be truth and not merely propaganda. These interviews show that a majority of slaves were uneducated; some received a little education while in bondage, but most had not been able to better themselves since emancipation. Some people even admitted that they thought slavery had helped the development of young men.

Of course, these apparent drawbacks to freedom were a result of systematic racism and deprivation within American society. Former slaves were awarded few opportunities for betterment, and their rights were frequently impinged upon without legal protection. This digression brings me back to my question regarding the interviewers’ and publishers’ choice to portray their interviewees as uneducated.

I feel that the fairly significant dialectal difference would have assured white readers in the 1930s that they were a class above former slaves as if the content of the interviews wouldn’t have done enough to convince anyone who supported slavery that blacks also knew that they were lesser than whites and even that slavery was what was best for them.