Delany and Douglass: Brothers in the Fight for Freedom
History often repeats itself. Some consider Frederick Douglass as a harbinger of Martin Luther King. If this be so, then Delany could be considered the forerunner of Malcolm X. Yet, because Delany’s movement was not peaceful and because he advocated leaving America, Delany is not as well-known. Moreover, some submit, that the real Frederick Douglass is known only to a few as his militant side is often eclipsed by his peaceful rhetoric. Yet, these two were not enemies but were friends and they collaborated overtly and covertly toward a common goal. Although white abolitionists embraced Douglass, Delany, like Malcolm X, was viewed as too militant and therefore as a pariah. Both were angry black men that had something to be angry about. Let us hope that Malcolm's legacy will not be submerged by time and circumstance.
Martin Delany (1812–1885) was a leader in the battle for freedom, justice and equality for black people in America. He was renowned for his intelligence and militancy and cited Diodorus Siculus (80–60 BCE) and Herodotus (484–425 BCE) to support his contention that the world was indebted to African people. Delany was the son of a freeborn mother and a slave father. Like the black abolitionist David Walker before him, the fire of freedom burnt deep inside his soul. He believed that if members of his race were sold, and the trumpet of justice muted, that no black person was totally free.
When he was ten years old, his mother moved him and his siblings to Pennsylvania and he completed his education under the guidance of Lewis Woodson, one of the founders of Wilberforce College. Delany was no doubt influenced by Woodson’s black nationalism, even though Woodson was so light he could pass for white. Under Woodson, Delany received an excellent education and became a true Renaissance man. He was a journalist, novelist, medical doctor, inventor, antislavery lecturer, astronomer, author, pharmacist, politician, explorer, and jurist. He was also a Major in the Union army during the Civil War; the first black man to hold such a rank.
Delany was a man that truly made use of his time on earth. His book, The Conditions, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, was so harsh that it drew immediate criticism from the liberal press and even black abolitionists. Frederick Douglas once said, “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks him for making him a black man.” Delany considered himself to be of “unadulterated” African blood and some described him as black as jet. He was so proud of his African heritage and blackness that he believed a mulatto could never lead the black race because whites would always attribute his achievements to their blood.
Some claimed that he not only felt that blacks were equal to whites, he felt that they were superior to whites and used his accomplishments as an example of the potential of the black man once unleashed. Many whites were bemused by Delany’s unwillingness to placate whites. For his beliefs, a group of Harvard medical students successfully petitioned that he be expelled from the medical school. In 1847, he collaborated with Frederick Douglass in the formation of The North Star which was a black newspaper. Before working with Douglass, Delany published, The Mystery, a weekly newspaper that was popular. Delany was a man that would have felt at home a century later. He often wore African clothes in public. He frequently boasted that he was the most African man in the United States and he backed it up not only with words but with actions. To say it loud I’m black and I’m proud in the 1960s is one thing to say it in the 1860s is another.
In fact, Delany could be considered the first Afrocentrist. In a speech to the St. Cyprian Masonic Lodge (a lodge in which he helped to found), he stated the following: Egypt was an African society an offshoot of a more ancient Ethiopia and that Greece and Rome stole from Egypt. He gave his children Afrocentric names such as Ethiopia and Rameses. He was a Civil Rights Leader before the Civil War. There were many in the nation that did not care for him, yet his intellectual prowess was undeniable. Delany’s popular works are: Principia of Ethnology: The Origins of Races and Color and the Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party. One of the most educated and prominent African Americans of his day, he was so respected among whites that in 1865 he met with Lincoln to discuss plans for blacks after the war.
Delany, like Paul Cuffe and others, viewed America as the white man’s country. Unlike Douglass, he believed that black people should migrate back to Africa. He said: “We are a nation within a nation, we must go from our oppressors.” Like Malcolm X, he viewed the white man as the common enemy. He believed that even white abolitionists, imbued with their hidden racism, would never accept black people as equals. He wrote in a letter to Garrison: “I should be willing to remain in this country, fighting and struggling on, the good fight of faith. But I must admit, that I have no hopes in this country — no confidence in the American people — with a few excellent exceptions.”
Like many whites, Delany did not believe in black people integrating with white people, and he dispelled the myth that all black men wanted to have sex with white women, a myth well propagated by white men. He often asserted that in the long story of history, it was the white man that followed in the footsteps of the black man and not the other way around. He believed that as long as black people tried to emulate white people and viewed their blackness as a curse instead of a blessing — they could never discover what they could truly be.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, (1818–1895). Douglass like Abraham Lincoln, was truly a great man born in interesting times. Had he been white, only God knows what he would have accomplished. But many blacks thank God for “making him a black man”; because America and the world needed a great black leader. Even today, over a century after his death, there is much to be learned about “blackness,” from his scholarly work, candid statements and unremitting courage.
For instance, he once wrote the following regarding the situation of black people in America:
Take any race you please, French, English, Irish, or Scotch, subject them to slavery for ages-regard and treat them every where, every way, as property…. Let them be loaded with chains, scarred with the whip, branded with hot irons, sold in the market, kept in ignorance… and I venture to say that the same doubt would spring up concerning either of them, which now confronted the Negro.
And he said the following about America regarding the Fourth of July:
To him, [the slave] your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity. Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless, your shouts of Liberty and equality, hallow mocked, your prayers and hymns your sermons and Thanksgivings with all your religious parade in solemnity are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, a thin veil to cover up crimes, which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth, guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. Go search where you will. Roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world. Travel through South America. Search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
What made Frederick Douglass unique was his providential view of American history. He viewed the struggle of black people in the context of America; the establishment of America in the framework of European history; and the development of world events as part of a divine ordinance. Unlike Delany and others, Douglass knew the perils of slavery, and the lashes of the whip. Here was a man who was the product of one of the most hideous institutions ever erected on this planet, yet he remained comfortable in his own skin. He, like his race, was the unwanted fruit of that withered tree known as American slavery. But from this, he rose –- resurrecting with him the power of the human spirit, reminding us all, that God’s will is done on earth.
He was everything that a “nigger” was not supposed to be. He was a defiant slave, whose will was never broken and a master orator whose words were eloquently and forcefully spoken. He was articulate, he was witty, he was wise, he was brave, and he was passionate. A man who took his freedom; a man who earned the respect of white leaders and the love of white women. A man comfortable in the presence of the president or the slave. He was the figment of the white man’s imagination now real: the autodidactic “nigger” ‑‑ the nightmare of every slave-master and the dream of every slave.
His publication of his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass fueled the abolitionist movement and launched his career as an abolitionist. During his lifetime, he was the hub of the wheel that the black community revolved around and a nexus between the white and black communities. He advised John Brown and consulted with presidents; he pressed for emancipation, civil rights, women’s rights and later protested against Jim Crow laws and the practice of lynching. A description of his accomplishments is far beyond the scope of this article. However, the publication of his narratives in 1845, the establishment of his newspaper, The North Star (along with Delany) and his recruitment of blacks during the Civil War are among the kudos bestowed upon this great man.
Douglass was not only admired by black people. White people, including white women, also found him fascinating, Although Douglass’ marriage to a white woman is well recorded in the annals of history, what is little known is that he had several affairs with white women. His relationship with Ottilie Assing for over twenty years is perhaps the most provocative. When she first saw Douglass, she was immediately captured by his spell. In her view, he was the living embodiment of a hero, a handsome man with a voice that spoke directly to her heart. She once said that when he spoke his listeners were swept away as if a new apostle had revealed to them for the first time a truth that had lain unspoken in everyone’s heart. She described him as a light mulatto of unusually, tall, slender and powerful stature with a prominent forehead betokening genius. In her eyes, he was nothing short of a black Adonis chiseled by the whips of slavery and fashioned by the evils of his times.
To her, Frederick Douglass represented beauty in its purest form and a dream that had come true. This was, however, the nightmare of most white men, North and South that wanted white women to see black men not as what they could be, but as the figment of imagination based on their racial bias and sexual fears. Notwithstanding, Douglass represented the potential of such a black man once unleashed and this image of this black man invoked fear in many white men, even the most liberal among them. Perhaps many of them thought that such black men represented a clear and present danger to the purity of whiteness and over time such unions would consume the white race.
This attraction, however, could not be altered by the imagination of those that prohibited it; no more than it could have been altered by the grandparents of Benjamin Banneker. The laws of man are subservient to the laws of Nature. Thus, the affair was inevitable and started in 1856. It was not an affair of lust but an affair of love. She contended that she and Douglass lived: “unmarried… yet united in a deeper love than many who were married.” Ottilie was a member of the upper white class. She wrote letters to Douglass, provided him with financial support, often picked him up at train stations and spent summers with him. For instance, Douglass sought refuge in her Hoboken, NJ apartment in the immediate aftermath of John Brown’s raid. The two were often seen together at many social events.
There is no doubt that she was madly in love with him. She was certain that after Douglass’ wife Anna Murray died that he would marry her. But her dreams did not come true and after his wife’s death, he married his white secretary, Helen Pitts, in 1882. In August of 1884, Ottilie Assing committed suicide, leaving her estate to Douglass. In her will, she requested that all of the letters between the two of them be destroyed. To Ottilie, there could be only one Desdemona for her slave born and articulate Othello. She would forever remain a Pysche, caught in Cupid’s spell. Her book of love was now closed, with no more stories to tell.
It is the wound cut by love that bleeds the most and Ottilie loved Frederick Douglass’ mind, his body and his soul. She loved him with the kind of love that was always new, and that could never grow old. There were many biographies written about Frederick Douglass after his death, oddly enough not a single one mentioned this affair. It was not until recently that the story has become generally known. Perhaps, the story of a white woman that preferred death to a life without a black man was just too radical for an era when black men were being lynched for looking at a white woman.
For centuries, in antebellum America, it was perfectly normal for white men to have sex with black women, but it was totally unacceptable for a white woman, particularly of good social standing, to be insanely in love with a black man. Most white men of that era could possibly understand sex between black men and white women on an animalistic level attributing much of it to the licentiousness of the black man and the promiscuity of the white harlot. But for a white woman to love a black man, as a person, as a man, as a human being, was not something that white men wanted to accept. It is sad, but also true, that even some of Douglass’ fellow abolitionists had a problem with it. Miscegenation between black men and white women was feared as much as slave revolts and Southern white men thought that an educated black man brought him one step closer to the white woman’s bedroom.
Even though Douglass was admired by many whites in the North and overseas, there were some, even among abolitionists, that viewed his intellect as a threat. Although William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent abolitionists at that time, praised Douglass’ oratory in public, in private, he suggested that Douglass tone down his elegance. Garrison feared that it alienated and threatened some white audiences. Many whites feared: If Douglass could rise up and speak so eloquently, what does that say about the potential of 4 million held in bondage? Furthermore, in Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, he often portrayed Douglass as a former slave and emphasized his journey from slavery and not his intellect. Many abolitionists wanted to highlight the cruelty of slavery instead of the potential of black people. To this end, some were willing to accept the humanity of the black slave., but unwilling to acknowledge the equality of black people. A distinction not often articulated in our history books
Douglass struggled with this view, and at times, went outside of the circle circumscribed by white abolitionists. Often, whites would call upon him to be the “token black.“ Notwithstanding, he would not always perform as planned. His Fourth of July and Emancipation Statue speeches are prime examples of his deviations. His marriage to Hellen Pitts, was another example of Douglass stepping outside the boundaries drawn for him. Even though Douglass had affairs with white women, such affairs were normally kept sub rosa. However, his marriage to Hellen was considered surprising and scandalous and brought the issue of miscegenation and black inequality to the fore. In marrying Hellen, Douglass was also taking a great risk because interracial marriages were against the law in most states. He once said: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
Delany and Douglass were men of their times, forged by their convictions to end slavery, bound by the cause of equality, and scorched by the flames of intolerance. Although their methods were different, the ultimate goal was the same. In the soil of America, they planted crops to be harvested on another day by a future generation of black people yearning to breathe free. What many whites saw in Delany, Douglass and others was the unraveling of the “Big White Lie” of racial inferiority. Some whites feared this as much as the slave feared the whip.
Although the slave fears were obvious, the fears of whites were often concealed, but sometimes revealed by their opposition to equality and to miscegenation between a black man and a white woman. In the antebellum South, sex between a white man and a black female slave produced another slave. However, sex between a black man and a white woman (in addition to violating her sanctity) produced a free black person. Notwithstanding, after slavery, any form of miscegenation was viewed as taboo in the North and in the South.
Even though a century separated Delany and Douglas from Dr. King and Malcolm X, the racial inequalities still loomed. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow. The United States was now a superpower and the leader of the “free” world. Yet the bells of equality were still muted by the sounds of oppressions throughout its land. This is the story of America often hidden behind the flag and its heroes. We frequently forget, or refuse to admit, that the beacon of American freedom is often obscured by the injustices of the past. Douglass once said: The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery. Unfortunately, history proves that this statement is untrue.