By Hannah Rose Murray, PhD candidate, University of Nottingham
Frederick Douglass, unknown photographer, c. 1850. Image courtesy of the National
Portrait Gallery Charter Collection.
During a Deep South trip in 2013, I visited numerous plantations and historic sites that did not interpret African American history accurately, if at all. Tours of plantation houses involved a deeply nostalgic narrative that painted the black enslaved population as ‘part of the family.’ My fellow white visitors on these tours accepted this nostalgic narrative without question. It was accepted as the truth, which not only disastrously perverts the history of slavery and the nature of black resistance, but it also implies that these white visitors failed to understand how the legacy of slavery impacts society today. Racial discrimination and police brutality are deeply embedded in both America and in Britain, and these narratives must be resisted.
There is nothing new or radical about this, but it leads me to a very important question: what is my role as a white scholar studying the history of slavery and antislavery? In Britain, only 85 professors are black, 17 of whom are black women. This horrifying statistic alone highlights how white privilege is still very much alive, and we have to do whatever is in our power to fight this. Recognizing this (and the fact that I, like many of my colleagues, are white), we must confront racism in an academic environment and encourage ethnic minorities to attend university and create opportunities for them to remain. White and black scholars, activists and members of the community must collaborate together to confront racial discrimination. But within that should lie a recognition of the prevalence of white privilege as well as a respect towards those who continually fight a daily battle against racism.
In contemporary society, it is impossible to study the history of race without referring to Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, and the problems black Americans and Britons face today. My PhD analyses the influence of African Americans on British society in the nineteenth century, and how in particular they resisted British racism. My last chapter focuses on racism and police brutality towards black people in both the UK and the USA. One of the main abolitionists in my research is Frederick Douglass, ex-slave and the most famous African American of the nineteenth century. What can we learn about collaboration through Douglass’ experience with white abolitionists?
Maria Weston Chapman, c.1846. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Although Douglass had sincere friendships with male and female white abolitionists throughout his life, many were frequently patronizing and racist towards him. Boston-based abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman infuriated Douglass when she warned him he might become “drunk with vanity” if he did not follow the example of white abolitionists. This reveals the racism endemic within the abolitionist movement, and how white activists often mistrusted their black counterparts and believed they needed to be guided and looked after. As one might expect, Douglass was incensed by this and defended his independence and his decision to live a life dictated by himself, not by others. (Chapman to Webb, 1846; Douglass to Chapman, 1846)
Douglass was also wary of traveling with some white abolitionists. British-based American activist Henry Clarke Wright was a radical abolitionist and great friend of William Lloyd Garrison, but attracted much controversy during his time in Britain, one reason for the sparse interest in his lectures. Wright often championed disunion of the republic, and Douglass believed it would “prevent that harmony necessary to success” in antislavery meetings. Wright “identified with doctrines for which I do not wish to seem responsible”, and Douglass evidently believed lecturing with Wright jeopardized his antislavery mission, and therefore, his celebrity. (Douglass to Webb, 1845). Clearly, this is a lesson in how not to collaborate.
Famously, these squabbles led to Douglass’ break with Garrison in the 1850s, after both men had fundamentally different beliefs about the Constitution and the means of which to champion abolition. Another element to this, though, was the tendency for Garrison and other white abolitionists to constantly disrespect and patronise Douglass. On numerous occasions, Garrison wanted Douglass to just talk about his experience in slavery, and disregard any thoughts about racism in the North. There was no room for Douglass’ independent spirit or his desire to tell something beyond his story. Hence, in the first edition of his newspaper The North Star, Douglass very clearly and powerfully stated:
It is neither a reflection on the fidelity, nor a disparagement of the ability of our friends and fellow-laborers, to assert what “common sense affirms and only folly denies,” that the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress,—that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT—and that he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty. It is evident we must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly—not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends. (3 December 1847)
Douglass believed that the individual who had suffered slavery, and continues to suffer racial discrimination, had greater authority to “cry out” against white supremacy. No white person would ever know what it was like to experience racism on a daily basis. Yet Douglass did not advocate a separation between white and black abolitionists, on the contrary, he wanted collaboration, and one that was based on mutual respect. He would work with anyone as along as they respected him as an individual, and as a black man.
In an article entitled ‘In my Brother’s House’, white scholar Tim McCarthy argues race “has both fueled imperialism and undermined democracy” and can explain the ways in which white supremacy is still prevalent today. As white scholars, we have a duty to “document and foster interracial alliances” and “we must confront our fellow white Americans [to] challenge them and make them realise contributions of black Americans in society.” My duty as a white scholar is to acknowledge and fight against this white privilege, which exerts itself in myriad ways, from within the academy to a plantation tour. My work focuses on African American resistance, which has been an important and heroic thread throughout history. I want to uncover what has been omitted, reclaim what has been forgotten or purposely forgotten and chip away at the barriers of white history and scholarship. My contribution is to reveal, analyse and honour the strength of black resistance in a transatlantic context, and respect those who are fighting the same battles as their ancestors.