Friday, July 22, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Living with Thomas Auld
Frederick had seen Thomas Auld only on the rare trips the shopkeeper made to Baltimore, but he had not forgotten who had sent him back to Baltimore after the distribution of the Anthony slaves.  Now, returning to the Eastern Shore in the spring of 1833, the boy hoped to find in Thomas an uncle, an older brother, perhaps a friend.  At the door of the Aulds’ St. Michaels house—it was a store and post office as well—Amanda, Thomas and Lucretia’s appealing small child, welcomed him warmly, but as he responded, her stepmother immediately instructed him to be respectful.  Rebuffed, he looked to Thomas, who saw before him not so much a winning young boy as a compelling adolescent.  Frederick could not read the austerity visible in his owner’s face as the two looked sternly at each other.
About Thomas Auld, Frederick wrote the following.
… Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder.  He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft.  He came into possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst.  He was cruel, but cowardly.  He commanded without firmness.  In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times rigid, and at times lax.  … He found himself incapable of managing his slaves either by force, fear, or fraud.  We seldom called him “master;” we generally called him “Captain Auld,” …. Our want of reverence for him must have perplexed him greatly.  He wished to have us call him master, but lacked the firmness necessary to command us to do so.  His wife used to insist upon our calling him so, but to no purpose (Douglass 66 67).
Not long after Frederick’s arrival at St. Michaels, Thomas Auld attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in Talbot County and “there experienced religion.
… I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane.  I was disappointed in both these respects.  … If it had any effect on his character, it made him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.  … After his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.  He made the greatest pretensions of piety.  His house was the house of prayer.  He prayed morning, noon, and night.  He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter.  His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls.  His house was the preacher’s home.  They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them (Douglass 67-68).
At this time in his life, Frederick “was powerfully drawn to religion.  He had been moved by the Word as he and Sophia Auld read the Bible, and when he was twelve, having already met some of the free black boys who attended the Bethel chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he began attending the new Sabbath school for black children at the Dallas Street Methodist Church.  … Frederick himself began teaching in the Sabbath school when he was only about fourteen.  Three men greatly influenced his religious commitment, which he would eventually lose as he witnessed the corrupting influence slavery had upon the church.  One was a white itinerant evangelist, a “Mr. Hanson.”  Another was Charles Johnson, a black caulker and lay preacher in the Bethel chapel.  The third was “Uncle Lawson,” a drayman for a Fells Point ropemaker.  “Despite Hugh Auld’s threats—never carried out—to whip him if he didn’t stop wasting time in the alley, Frederick began spending long hours with Lawson, an only partially literate lay preacher.  As the boy, the better reader, searched the words of the Bible, Lawson sought their spirit.  He saw huge promise in the boy, spoke to him Douglass said, of ‘what I ought to be,’ …. He gave Frederick a sense of destiny” (McFeely 38).
But Frederick was profoundly disappointed in [Thomas] Auld and in the Methodist church.  Although one minister, George Cookman, much respected by his black congregants, adhered to the old tenet that slavery was a sin and urged its end, the majority of his fellow clergymen did not, and they saw to it that Cookman was moved out of Talbot County (McFeely 43-44).
We slaves loved Mr. Cookman.  We believed him to be a good man.  We thought him instrumental in getting Mr. Samuel Harrison, a very rich slaveholder, to emancipate his slaves …. When he was at our house, we were sure to be called in to prayers.  When the others were there, we were sometimes called in and sometimes not.  Mr. Cookman took more notice of us than either of the other members.  He could not come among us without betraying his sympathy for us, and, stupid as we were, we had the sagacity to see it.
While I lived with my master in St. Michael’s, there was a white young man, a Mr. Wilson, who proposed to keep a Sabbath school for the instruction of such slaves as might be disposed to learn to read the New Testament.  We met but three times, when Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders, with many others, came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again.  Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael’s (Douglass 68).
Frederick had been an active participant, a teacher.  He himself had gathered some of the other young black men in the vicinity to attend.  The mob of white men asked Frederick if he “wanted to be another Nat Turner.”  Standing with them was Thomas Auld.
Worse still was Auld’s treatment of Frederick’s crippled cousin, Henny.  Her inability to work because of her twisted hands, as well as her bitterness, was a source of constant guilt and frustration for Thomas.  When his wife complained, he tied Henny up and whipped her, reciting “with blood-chilling blasphemy” as he did, “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”  So much, thought Frederick, for the benevolence that flows from Christianity.
It was clear that Thomas was not going to rescue him through either manumission or the creation of some special world within slavery, and Rowena [Thomas’s wife], who was so stingy that her slaves were often desperate with hunger, was determined to make an obedient, profitable slave of Frederick. She succeeded in doing precisely the opposite.  Frederick’s sister Eliza taught him the time-honored ways of slave rebellion—an instruction forgotten, a tool misplaced, a task half-performed.  In exasperation, Rowena Auld, reminding Frederick of Aunty Katy, tried to starve the two into submission.  Their response was to steal (McFeely 43-44).
… We were therefore reduced to the wretched necessity of living at the expense of our neighbors.  This we did by begging and stealing, whichever came handy in the time of need, the one being considered as legitimate as the other
 (Douglass 66)..
My master … found me unsuitable to his purpose.  My city life, he said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me.  It had almost ruined me for every good purpose.  … One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm, which was about five miles from St. Michael’s.  I would then have to go after it.  My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there.  Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat.  I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return.  Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.  I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.  He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey (Douglass 69-70).
It would be one of the most important years of Frederick Douglass’s life.
Works Cited:
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Thoughts of Escape
I went, one day, on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a large scow of stone, or ballast, I went on board, unasked, and helped them.  When we had finished the work, one of the men came to me, aside, and asked me a number of questions, and among them, if I were a slave.  I told him “I was a slave and a slave for life.”  The good Irishman gave his shoulders a shrug, and seemed deeply affected by the statement.  He said “it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life.”  They both had much to say about the matter, and expressed the deepest sympathy with me, and the most decided hatred of slavery.  They went so far as to tell me that I outh to run away, and go to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I would be as free as anybody.  I, however, pretended not to be interested in what they said, for I feared they might be treacherous.  White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then—to get the reward—they have kidnapped them, and returned them to their masters (McFeely 33).
Frederick’s encounter with these sympathetic white men was an important emotional experience.  Because of it, he put aside his pessimism.  Instead, he “looked forward to a time at which it would be safe for me to escape.  I was too young to think of doing so immediately; besides, I wished to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass.  I consoled myself with the hope that I should one day find a good chance.  Meanwhile, I would learn to write” (Douglass 57)
He could read; he knew the letters, but he had seldom written them and had never transferred his thoughts to paper.
            … when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he.  The next word would be,”I don’t believe you.  Let me see you try it.”  I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.  It this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.  During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.  With these, I learned mainly how to write.  I then commenced and continued copying the italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book.  … Master Thomas had … learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books.  These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside.  My mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house.  When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.  I continued to do this until I could write a hand every similar to that of Master Thomas (Douglass 57-58).
As Frederick Bailey worked to shape his own destiny, events occurred elsewhere that would complicate it.
About two years after the death of Lucretia (Anthony) Auld, her husband (Frederick’s master now) remarried.
            Rowena Hambleton was the daughter of a prosperous farmer living five miles west of the little port [St. Michaels].  She was also an ill-tempered woman; having married a shopkeeper-postmaster, she sought to compensate for her diminished social status by being imperious with her slaves.  She was also determined that her husband drive hard bargains in dealing with this property.  Frederick’s cousin Henny had been painfully crippled by a fall into a fire as a child and her hands were permanently closed.  Rowena, resenting both the care of this useless slave and the fact that her brother-in-law and his wife in Baltimore had, gratis, the use of a now-strong adolescent male who belonged to Thomas, insisted that the Hugh Aulds take Henny as well as Frederick.  They did, but Sophia soon found Henny to be too much trouble, and persuaded her husband to send her back.  Thomas’s response to his brother’s action was, As Frederick  recalled it, “If he cannot keep ‘Hen’ he shall not have ‘Fred.’” (McFeely 36-37).
Frederick’s biographer McFeely speculates that there may have been other reasons why Hugh and Sophia Auld gave Frederick back to Thomas Auld.  The year was 1833, two years after Nat Turner’s slave insurrection.  Nat Turner had been a “too-bright slave, hired out and not under a master’s direct discipline.”  He was self-educated and eloquent.  What influence might he have had on Frederick, who possessed many of the same qualities?  Also, Frederick was fifteen; he had grown phys8cally powerful and “with that growth came the approach of sexual maturity.  Puberty put a gulf between him and his ‘family.’  … Hugh Auld had long had a sense of what he had to deal with in Frederick.  … He may actually have discussed Frederick’s rebelliousness with his brother.  … They must have realized that the bright, big, unsubmissive, unhappy boy was likely to try running away, or might get involved in antislavery or other forbidden activities that could easily lead to a slave’s death.  The Aulds may have reasoned that the boy becoming a young men would be safer out of Baltimore and back on the Eastern Shore, living like any other ordinary field-hand slave” (McFeely 37, 39).
The announcement that he was to return to the Eastern Shore must have been a crushing blow to Frederick.  As for his separation from Hugh and Sophia Auld, however, Frederick felt little regret.  “… a great change had taken place in Master Hugh and his once kind and affectionate wife.  The influence of brandy upon him, and of slavery upon her, had effected a disastrous change in the characters of both.  … It was not to them that I was attached.  It was to those little Baltimore boys that I felt the strongest attachment. … and the thought of leaving them was painful indeed.
            I then had to regret that I did not at least make the attempt to carry out my resolution to run away; for the chances of success are tenfold greater from the city than from the country.
            I sailed from Baltimore for St. Michael’s in the sloop Amanda, Captain Edward Dodson.  On my passage, I paid particular attention to the direction which the steamboats took to go to Philadelphia.  I found, instead of going down, on reaching North Point they went up the bay, in a north-easterly direction.  I deemed this knowledge of the utmost importance.  My determination to run away was again revived.  I resolved to wait only so long as the offering of a favorable opportunity.  When that came, I was determined to be off (Douglass 63-64).
Works Cited:
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"The Keepers of the House"
Shirley Ann Grau
It took me 42 days to read the first 200 pages of Shirley Ann Grau’s 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Keepers of the House” and one sitting to finish its final 109 pages.  During those first 200 pages the book seemed more anecdotal than directional.  What is this that I am reading, a family genealogy? I wondered.  I thought about quitting the book for one that adhered more to the default formula of popular fiction-writing: grab the reader’s interest on the very first page, establish quickly an easily discernible conflict, present events not typical of ordinary life, encourage the reader to live the main character’s defeats and triumphs, and leave everybody satisfied at the end.  But then, much to my satisfaction, “The Keepers of the House” took off.
Shirley Ann Grau’s novel is about real life, as it was lived in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s in rural Alabama.  More specifically, it is about how racism negatively affected every individual’s life in that locality at that time.  Her depiction is not superficial, contrived, or stereotypical.  It is complex because she knows her subject matter thoroughly, her characters are complex, and racism is complicated, being the end result of any number of defective human characteristics.  Grau takes her time (probably too much, i.e. detailing their histories) developing her three main characters.  We come to like and respect them, despite their fallibilities.  We see that each is a good person.  We discover that each at least once rejects conspicuously the implicit rules of racism.  Each suffers hard consequences.  The question asked of the reader at the end of the novel is this: Was each character’s act/acts of conscience worth his/her personal sacrifice? 
William Howland’s great great grandfather had created a farm between the forks of the Providence River after the conclusion of the War of 1812.  By the time William inherited it, the property his Howland predecessors had owned had increased considerably in size and wealth.  William was land rich.  Inhabitants of the area accepted him, despite his behavioral quirks.  He was, after all, “a real Howland, best blood in the county, best land, and most of the money.”  When the major events of the novel occur, he is a widower, his son and daughter are both dead, and he is responsible for the continued welfare of his daughter’s only child, Abigail Howland Mason.
The granddaughter Abigail grows up in her grandfather’s rural house separated geographically and socially from her white peers.  She is an only child.  Her playmates are her grandfather’s three children by his black mistress, Margaret Carmichael.  When rare occasions made interaction possible, white children always declined to play with them.  The children of William Howland’s black workers refused as well, Margaret’s children’s blood being tainted.  Because of her grandfather’s views about race were moderate, because she associated daily with Margaret and her children, and because she was rarely exposed to the blatant racism of the people in the immediate area, Abigail grew up less susceptible to the lure of racial superiority and entitlement.
Margaret is a descendant of a “freejack” black man.  Freejacks were slaves who fought with General Andrew Jackson against the British at New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812 on the promise made by Jackson that he would free them after the war.  Thereafter, freejacks scattered.  Many settled in the Alabama swamp area close to Howland property.  Margaret’s father was a white road construction worker who had spent two weeks in the swamp area where Margaret’s mother lived.  Margaret’s mother abandoned her when she was eight, seeking to find, rumor said, her white lover.  William met Margaret when she was 18 -- he, on a lark, searching the swamps for a still and subsequently hiring her as his housekeeper.  To untrained Northern eyes, all three of their children could pass as being White.  At the age of eleven, upon Margaret’s insistence, each child was sent to a private school in the North never to return.  In the North they might have a future.  In the South, despite their skin color, they would forever be regarded by Whites and Blacks alike as “niggers.” 
There is much more about these characters that you must discover.
Not surprisingly, this Pulitzer Prize-winning author is a skill scene-writer.  Here are two of my favorites.
Margaret’s oldest child Robert contracts pneumonia.  William rides into town to fetch the town doctor. 
My grandfather didn’t tell Harry Armstrong who was sick until they were on the road out of town, and driving steadily on.
Harry Armstrong just shook his head, unbelieving.  “God damn it, Will, you got me out on a night like this for a nigger kid?”
“Looks like,” my grandfather said.
“You said it was little Abbey.”
“No I never,” my grandfather told him.  “You figured that yourself.”
“Jesus Christ,” Harry Armstrong said.  “I got to be thinking of my practice.  … God damn it, Will, with your money you got no cause to worry, but I got to figure what your damn-fool trick’s going to cost me.”
“I’ll pay you,” Will said flatly.
“When people find out I treated a nigger kid, what kind of a practice do you reckon I have left?”
“To hell with them,” my grandfather said.
They eventually agreed to circulate the story that Armstrong had been called to treat Abigail for a sudden onset of small pox.
This second scene follows Abigail’s expulsion from college – she had attended an elopement of a friend who was a Catholic.  Her grandfather was angry with her because he now had to make many telephone calls to influential people to get her reinstated.  Abigail is angry that he is angry and angry about being expelled.  Margaret spends time with her in the kitchen while William makes his calls in a separate room.
“You hungry?” Margaret asked.
“Didn’t have lunch?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Soup,” she said.  “Take some.”
She was sitting by the kitchen table.  She’d been waiting for me.
“Is he here?”
She smiled.  “Where else he going?”
“On the phone?”
“Since you flounced out the house.”
“Well, I got reason to flounce,” I told her.  “The old bastards at school …”
“He don’t like you talking like that,” she said quietly.
“Okay.  Okay.” I went and looked into the soup pot.
“Abby.”  I jumped.  She almost never called me by name.  “You ought called to him this morning, not just leave a message with me.”
“I didn’t want to talk to him.  I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.”
“You hurt his feelings.”
“Well, they hurt mine.”
She chuckled.  “Maybe you better stay out here with me, till the both of you quiet down some.”
I took the ladle and stirred the soup, not answering.
“He been on the phone all day,” Margaret said.  “He’ll fix it for you.”
There was pride and satisfaction in her tone that I hadn’t heard before.  “I don’t want it fixed.”
“Keep out his way tonight, child,” she said.  “And take yourself some soup.  All that temper’s nothing but empty insides.”
I had supper with Margaret, while my grandfather stayed by the telephone in the living room.  In a little while she brought him a sandwich and sat there to keep him company.
Another writing skill that Shirley Ann Grau demonstrates is her use of sharp sensory detail to convey presence and evoke emotion.   Here is an example.
William began to remember how a swamp smelled, thick and sweet.  And how the water bubbled with rising gases when you stirred it with a stick, how the crawfish hung on the underside of a log, and you picked them off like fruit.  The sharp angle a swimming moccasin made—the jut of the neck and the V of waves fluttering out behind.  The close smell of unmoving water, of decay.  The roar of gators mating, and their wobbling waddle as they launched themselves into the water.  The sweet sick odor of the nest banks, the wallows.
Finally, what Grau writes is completely authentic.  She knows her people.  She knows how they live.  She tells us that cotton pickers have bigger hands than other people.  She writes about how a large, quality wedding is organized, about the seasonal operations of a large farm, about how a husband reacts to the death of his wife from a sudden fever, about how female relatives hammer a widower to remarry, about how subscribing to a New York newspaper brands you a traitor, about how more traumatic it was for a black person to have White blood mixed with his or her Black blood than it was to be pure Black-blooded.  And so much more.
I did persevere; I dud finish the book; it was well worth the time spent.