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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 19, 2020

Reflection on "The Good Lord Bird," Episode 103: On Meeting Frederick Douglass

"Mister Fred," Episode 3 of "The Good Lord Bird" was perhaps the most silly and irreverent installment so far. As satire, I suppose it hits the mark, particularly with Frederick Douglass being spoofed by Daveed Diggs' portrayal of him as a petulant, self-important, and whining "king of the Negroes." I found it amusing only at a few slight points, but otherwise found the story offensive and typically disturbing to my historical sensibilities.

In synopsis, Brown and "Onion" (Joshua Caleb Johnson) travel to Rochester, NY, to see Douglass and stay at his home. Brown wants to get Douglass to garner economic support from influential people in the North, particularly a group of abolitionist elites known in history as "The Secret Six" (wealthy Gerrit Smith and George L. Stearns, the reverends Thomas Higginson and Theodore Parker, and the educators, Franklin Sanborn and Samuel Howe). Douglass is as irritated by Brown's presence as he is receptive toward him. His wife Anna (played by Tamberla Perry) is pro-Brown and his European lover, Ottilie (played by Lex King), who is staying under the same roof--and sharing Douglass with his wife--is anti-Brown and calls him "insane" at the dinner table. The tension leads Douglass into a whining fit, especially as he gets into a drinking binge with "Onion." Brown and "Onion" finally leave Douglass's home without knowing if he'll help him.

There's lots to say here because James McBride, followed closely by Ethan Hawke's screenplay, knows enough about Douglass to spoof him effectively. Frederick Douglass actually had two important European female associates, an English woman named Julia Griffiths, who was very instrumental in helping him with his publications and abolitionist work. He also met a German (and atheist) journalist named Ottilie Assing, who lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ottilie did not live with the Douglass family, but became close to them, as did Griffiths at some point. I don't recall, but I don't think there was hanky-panky between Douglass and Julia; it appears there was some hanky-panky between Douglass and Ottilie, but not under the same roof, and probably not in the harem-like scenario that Hawke's storyline suggests.

Ottilie was an important sounding board and access person for Douglass to meet literary and political people. The real Ottilie was stridently pro-Brown and came out of the European left tradition. Whatever sparked between them, ultimately Douglass was more interested in the access and exposure that Ottilie got for him than he was interested in Ottilie as some kind of soul mate. In contrast, she was all into Douglass and pined for him, and in later years not only tried to influence Douglass (like convincing him of atheism) but probably also wanted to replace his wife. But Douglass never took the bait and Ottilie never got what she wanted; sadly, she committed suicide later. So there's probably a thread of truth in the satire.

We tend to forget that Douglass was a "rock star" in 1859 and antislavery women loved him. If he failed his wife, that's a minus on his record, but he was no player, and he deserves some character ethics in this regard. I think "The Good Lord Bird's" portrayal is unfair and do not think making Douglass into a whining "king" in a two-bed household is fair. Is this really using comedy to convey historical truth, as McBride and Hawke claim to be doing?

For me, an equally offensive aspect is the dialogue between Douglass and Brown at the dinner table, when Brown tells Douglass he believes the enslaved people will fight if given the chance. At this, Douglass snaps at Brown and essentially tells him off, reminding him that he, Douglass, of all people, knew what the enslaved might think and do. Then Ottilie adds that Brown is the craziest man who ever sat at the table. Such affronts and insults never happened, especially under Douglass's roof.

The reality is that after Douglass met Brown in 1847, he recounted speaking with Brown and a group of black men in a letter that was published in his own newspaper. In that letter, Douglass wrote: ". . . though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." This is a far cry from the representation conveyed in "The Good Lord Bird," and I'm not entirely sure it qualifies as satire. It seems almost malicious to see such skepticism as McBride-Hawke do when it comes to presenting black attitudes toward Brown.

Anyone who has examined the surviving correspondence between the two men knows they had a warm, mutual affirming, and respectful relationship well into the late 1850s. Salmon Brown, a son, recalled his father and mother babysitting the Douglass children. Douglass added a warm postscript to Brown's letter to his wife in 1858, when Brown was staying with him in Rochester, New York. True, they had tensions in 1859 when Douglass could not approve of Brown's "add-on" to the older plan--to attack the federal armory in Virginia. Douglass and Brown had words and Brown lost Douglass' final support and lost confidence in Douglass. But they remained friends, and Douglass never changed his tune about Brown for the rest of his life, whatever he may have felt in private thought. It is Douglass who provides the greatest platform for Brown's legacy in the long run.

Among other things, the Brown-Douglass relationship is a primer on black-white relations, especially in leadership. We are all flesh-and-blood, with egos and needs, and pride. At our best, so-called whites may prove good allies to blacks; at worst, we may overstep and forget ourselves, even presume we know better. On the other hand, we should not forget that black leaders, like other leaders of color have personal lives and egos too, and sometimes these can become visible. Obviously, the male-female dynamic reveals another aspect of this human challenge. Brown probably leaned in too heavily on his black allies at times; he was by nature imperious. But this should not be mistaken as racial condescension as the late Vincent Harding did in his book, There is a River, or Kay Wright Lewis does in A Curse Upon the Nation. Brown was imperious toward whites as well as blacks. By his own admission, it was a native part of his temperament and has nothing to do with "race."

For his part, Douglass was a celebrity and he was younger than Brown in 1859, and had a lot more to lose personally, particularly at a time when his career and activism was expanding. Douglass did rely on two "white" women, and his less educated wife did have to share his attention and sometimes even space with these female colleagues, whether she liked it or not. Douglass was a man of immense character notwithstanding his human nature, but in some sense his ego was formidable and he had his own man issues. Still, he was a man of integrity and vast powers of intellect and communication, and he used his immense gifts for the just cause. As Douglass put it in retrospect, Brown "could die for the slave" while he could "live for the slave." That was a genuine admission to a great deal more than Brown's willingness to become an antislavery martyr.
The Douglass-Brown story of 1859 is not an easy story to tell. I don't think it was easy even for Douglass to recount, which is why he didn't go into detail about their clash in his third autobiography written in the 1880s. As I have observed elsewhere, all correspondence between Douglass and the Browns seems to have ended after Harper's Ferry, and this probably says as much about the Brown family's disappointment and resentment as it does about Douglass' pride. We are human beings and we differ and fail and fall, fall-out and disappoint, and sometimes these human factors shape history in definitive ways.

I'm sorry that Ethan Hawke wants to portray Brown as a wide-eyed, well-meaning antislavery zealot with a problem of emotional effusion. I can take Hawke's Brown doing silly thins like combing his mustache at the table with his fork. But I'm offended at turning this precious story on its head for the sake of television, making Douglass look like a whining, privileged brat on a sitcom, and suggesting that he held Brown in mixed esteem. Besides, Brown didn't need Douglass to get access to deep pockets. Brown had that on his own; rather he wanted to get black fighters through Douglass' influence, and it was that support that ultimately Douglass withheld.

I can bracket my sensibilities and watch "The Good Lord Bird" for fun, but watching this series is the kind of fun that amounts to eating junk food. It's not nourishing, edifying, or satisfying if one has an appetite to learn and reflect upon history.

1 comment:

The Rush Blog said...

I hate to say this, but after reading about McBride's novel, I was reluctant to see this series. Perhaps I'll watch it one day.