Submitted to the AFRO by Kim F. Hall
The following is an excerpt from the book If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection. It has been edited for length and clarity.
As I read If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection, which offers a new, more intimate story of American icon Frederick Douglass, two contemporary images haunt me. In one, a grieving pregnant Black woman, Myeshia Johnson, bends over embracing the flag-draped coffin of her husband, Army Sergeant La David T. Johnson.
Her face is mostly hidden, but you can almost feel her shoulders shaking with tears, held up only by the coffin and her own dignity. A young Black girl, his daughter, wearing carefully braided cornrows and a coordinating dress, perhaps bought in anticipation of a more cheerful homecoming, stands next to her mother with almost military erectness, her hands crossed behind her back. A uniformed officer looks on from across the tarmac.
Sergeant La David T. Johnson was surrounded by Black women after the untimely death of his mother, especially Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the aunt who stepped in to raise him, and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who mentored him—other mothers who helped shape him into manhood. The collective grief and activism of Black women brought him to public consciousness.
Mrs. Myeshia Johnson would soon be drafted from private mourning into a larger struggle over White supremacy and military accountability. In this moment of her unfolding story she merges with Mamie Till, demanding answers and justice; with the many “Mothers of the Movement” who turn grief into political action; and with the Douglass family, whose private moments—as small as a skating outing—must be read within their larger freedom struggle.
The image of the bereft Johnson family haunts another image, this one of patriarchal militarism. Standing in front of the White House seal, General John F. Kelly uses the authority of his national military service and personal grief over his own deceased son to attack Sergeant Johnson’s other mothers, who have the temerity to demand answers and respect from the administration. The general’s grief is palpable.
He turns the conversation from the murky fate of Sergeant Johnson in Niger to the supposedly indecorous behavior of the Black women trying to protect his widow and legacy. Why, he wants to know, did an unrelated Black woman listen in on a Black family’s personal moment? Insisting on a privatized notion of family, isolated from public life, his attack rhetorically takes the flag from La David Johnson’s coffin and wraps it around the Trump presidency, along with a call for a return to the days of falsely sanctified White womanhood and patriarchal families that protect the interests of White supremacy.
I am aghast, not only at this disrespect for Black women and the blatant appeal to White supremacy, but also at this fundamental misunderstanding of Black family. At any moment that called for a grace, my grandmother would end a prayer asking for blessings for our “family and family connections.” Her expansive phrase reminded us that family was not just about connections through blood and marriage, but a world built from affinity, history, alliance, and love.
This is the sense of family that sustained Blacks in the diaspora while denial of legal marriage and bloodlines became a bedrock of the chattel slavery Douglass spent his freedom fighting. It lingers in the various states of unfreedom that continue to challenge Black families.
If I Survive transforms the common image of Douglass the icon: these letters, images, speeches, and manuscript writings gathered and transcribed for casual as well as scholarly reading for the first time make us alive to the Douglass family as a collective and vital component to his activism. In the first version of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, family is watermarked in the descriptions of his childhood, coming to the forefront primarily to highlight chattel slavery’s destruction of Black family.
In this volume we marvel at Douglass’s singular gifts while at the same time finding inspiration in the familial comfort, encouragement, labor, advice, and sustenance that made possible their fullest expression. Between the more widely known individual portrait photos of Douglass and the photos of the thousands who gathered for his homecoming and commemoration are the beautiful portraits of the Douglass descendants with Anna Murray Douglass’s eyes and their parents’ posture. When we see photos of Douglass, the great man alone in his study, we can now fill in Anna Murray Douglass, who kept home and family together during his absences; daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague, his “amanuensis, editor, proof-reader”; sons Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., and Charles Remond Douglass, offering insight and generational perspectives in person and correspondence; and his second wife Helen Pitts-Douglass, who, as his former secretary, carried on these duties.
Douglass recalls that his mother, Harriet Bailey, enslaved on the Lloyd plantation, would occasionally walk twelve miles to Holmes Hill plantation and back, risking whipping or worse, to “lie down with me and get me to sleep.” For Douglass, these are fleeting, barely remembered moments: “but long before I waked she was gone.”
Scholars and readers owe a great debt to the Douglass family’s assiduous compiling of their family papers and to the Walter O. Evans and family’s insistence on creating—and now sharing widely—an archive of Black liberation. In place of the thingness and commodified flesh of the chattel ledger that Frederick Bailey escaped, the Douglass family scrapbooks and letters offer a living portrait of an incredible family, warm, connected, and vibrant in the endless pursuit of a freedom in more than name only.
The struggle for the cause of liberty needs such heroes and such families, but also such preservationists, scholars, and writers alive to falsely drawn divisions between public man and private life, homeplace, and liberation struggle. This is the first of many new stories being told about the Douglass family in this celebratory year. Others are waiting out there for you to tell.
Kim F. Hall is the Lucyle Hook Professor of English and a Professor of Africana Studies at Barnard College in New York. She was born Baltimore and holds a doctorate in sixteenth and seventeenth century English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania.
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