Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Douglass' Women, Douglass' secular humanism, Douglass' politics

My discovery of this novel this morning perked up what otherwise started out as a rotten day:

Douglass' Women: A Novel
by Jewell Parker

There was a real-life intellectual and romantic liaison between Frederick Douglass and German-Jewish emigré Ottilie Assing. She even lived with the Douglass family on Cedar Hill, something you won't learn when you visit the Douglass house today. Naturally, Douglass' wife was not thrilled at this arrangement, but there you go.

Assing claimed in a letter to Ludwig Feuerbach that Douglass was an atheist, but she was likely exaggerating. You can read the letter for yourself on my web site:

Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing about Frederick Douglass

We shall see how Parker handles the freethought aspect of their relationship.

This liaison is actually in the news, connected to the question of Douglass as freethinker. Here is a recent news story:

Douglass a Secular Humanist? by Hector Avalos, Ames Tribune, Saturday, February 5, 2011.

The Douglass-Assing relationship is the linchpin of Avalos' article. Avalos puts Douglass in the company of Dawkins and Hitchens. It's hardly a stretch to identify Douglass with secular humanism; this does not prove Douglass to be an atheist, Avalos admits such as assertion to be an exaggeration, but it would still be more accurate to specify what is knowable about the degree of overlap between Douglass' undeniable secularism and humanism, and the hardcore atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens.

This rather insufferable Christian rebuttal is ridiculous in rendering Douglass' 1883 "It Moves" speech consistent with Christianity, but the blogger is correct that Douglass' statements in themselves do not prove a disavowal of theism per se.

Deeper historical contextualization is mandated, if not in an occasional newspaper piece, then in further investigation of the subject.

I have always had doubts as to where Wilson Moses is coming from, but he has authored several books engaged in in-depth historical analysis of 19th century black nationalism. Note his treatment of Douglass here:

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Moses addresses the tensions within Douglass' politics, principally between his advocacy of the black cause and his integrationism. "His hostility to the traditionalism and institutional structure of organized religion was part and parcel of the extreme progressive liberalism that he embraced." Moses analyzes Douglass' moral perfectionism and aversion to relativism, a joint product of Enlightenment thought, liberalism, Victorian rationalism, and Christian perfectionism.

Here is another take by Moses on Douglass and other iconic black political intellectuals:

Creative Conflict in African American Thought by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Here you can read an excerpt:

I. Introduction. Reality and Contradiction

Among other things you will find here an analysis of the ideological differences between Douglass and Alexander Crummell, the uneasy relationship between moralism and power politics, and the tension in Douglass between individualism and racial loyalty.

Finally, note the quotation from Douglass in Evolutionary Writings by Charles Darwin, edited by James A. Secord (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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