I have been working with one of my students on African American poetry. Interesting facts I’ve learned about Frederick Douglass:
1) He was considered one of the most highly regarded African Americans in the 19th century.
2) He was a brilliant writer, speaker, social reformer, and statesman.
3) He was 1/2 white. His father was a slave owner and his mother was a slave.
4) He was born a slave and gained his freedom with the help of his first wife, Anna Murray, who was born a freedwoman.
5) He had several sons and 2 daughters with Anna. One of his daughters died at age 10. His other daughter was Rosetta, whom the poem below is addressed to.
6) Douglass was the first African American to be on a ticket as Vice President of the United States. His running mate was a woman, Victoria Woodhull, who ran for President on the Equal Rights Party ticket.
7) After Frederick Douglass’s wife died, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts, who was the editor of a radical feminist newspaper. They remained married until his death 11 years later.
8) Douglass’s children were upset by his marriage to Helen.
African American poet Evie Shockley wrote the persona poem below. Shockley is a contemporary poet who also teaches at Rutgers University.
from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass
BY EVIE SHOCKLEY
June 5, 1892
Can you be fifty-three this
month? I still look for you to peek around
my door as if you’d discovered a toy
you thought gone for good, ready at my smile
to run up and press your fist into my
broken palm. But your own girls have outgrown
such games, and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly.
what other choice did I have? What sham,
what shabby love could I offer you, so
long as Thomas Auld held the law over
my head? And when the personal threat was
ended, whose eyes could mine enter without
shame, if turning toward my wife and children
meant turning my back?
Your mother’s eyes stare
out at me through yours, of late. You think I
didn’t love her, that my quick remarriage
makes a Gertrude of me, a corseted
Hamlet of you. You’re as wrong as you are
lucky. Had Anna Murray had your
education as a girl, my love for
her would have been as passionate as it
was grateful. But she died illiterate,
when I had risked my life to master language.
The pleasures of book and pen retain
the thrill of danger even now, and you
may understand why Ottilie Assing,
come into our house to translate me into
German, could command so many hours,
years, of my time—or, as you would likely
say, of your mother’s time.
Rosetta, for broaching such indelicate
subjects, but as my eldest child and
only living daughter, I want you to
feel certain that Helen became the new
Mrs. Douglass because of what we shared
in sheaves of my papers: let no one
persuade you I coveted her skin.
I am not proud of how I husbanded
your mother all those years, but marriage,
too, is a peculiar institution.
I could not have stayed so unequally yoked
so long, without a kind of Freedom in
it. Anna accepted this, and I don’t
have to tell you that her lot was better
and she, happier, than if she’d squatted
with some other man in a mutual
Perhaps I will post, rather
that burn, this letter, this time. I’ve written it
so often, right down to these closing lines,
in which I beg you to be kinder, much
kinder, to your step-mother. You two are
of an age to be sisters, and of like
temperament—under other circumstances,
you might have found Friendship in each other.
With regards to your husband—I am, as
ever, your loving father—
Evie Shockley, “from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglas” from the new black. Copyright © 2011 by Evie Shockley. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Source: the new black (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)