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Frederick B. Hudson is a Bronx writer and a regular contributor to The Liberator.
A New and Old St. Patrick’s Day by Frederick B. Hudson: After the paper shamrocks and plastic green top hats were displayed yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day, it may be worthwhile, to ponder the rich texture of American and English African descendents who had significant exposure and involvement with the Emerald isle of Ireland.
Politicians of all ideologies make it their business to stroll down parade streets and nibble Irish soda bread and drink green tinted beer to capture Irish votes in the next election. But more than two hundred years ago, Ireland welcomed a man who championed the cause of freedom from slavery. He sought no votes, only victory from captivity for his fellow blacks.
He had a presence that in the words of one writer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was one of the first leaders of the American woman's rights movement, left audiences “completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor.” After his speeches, the writer noted, “he stood there like an African prince, majestic in his wrath.” The speaker was Frederick Douglass.
Douglass became familiar with Ireland not as a tourist, but as a fugitive. His flight status arose after he literally put his life on the line for his words and worth. Born Frederick Bailey on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation in either 1817 or 1818 to a mother who was a black slave and a father who was likely his mother’s white owner, Douglass struggled to teach himself to read and write as a slave. He escaped to Massachusetts and became involved in the abolitionist movement. His eloquence soon burnished many podiums.
Many people did not believe that a man of his speaking talent and intelligence could have ever been a slave. To refute these doubters, Douglass turned his verbal fluency to writing his life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1856 The book had a double edge to its blade. It made its author an international celebrity, but it also caused slave owners to make the former slave a wanted man. The slave owner community paced a bounty on Douglass head to discourage other “uppity n------s” from following Douglass’s example and fleeing.
When he got word of the movement to capture him, Douglass boarded a paddle steamer boat called The Cambria and fled to Ireland with false identity papers in his pocket.
This thrilling true story forms the basis for a play entitled The Cambria. Written by Donal O’Kelly, it opened yesterday at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan for a limited run through March 22.
While fascinating in itself as a dramatic and historical piece since the drama tells with pathos and humor the struggle for the first African American to have his name placed into nomination for the presidency of the United States for a major party (Republican, 1888), the play touches upon the impact of travel as an instrument for growth in the development of a leader.
Much has been made of current President Obama’s travels in Indonesia and Africa as central to his global world view and talent for coalition building. Obama himself frequently hails Douglass as his model for dynamic oratory.
But scholars claim that Douglass’s forced exile to Ireland gave him a sense of the value of his own ideas apart from the abolitionist movement that had spawned his career—a parallel similar to Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca which helped him forge a vista apart from the Nation of Islam’s separatist views.
James B. Hunt wrote in an article in The Journal of Leadership Studies in 2000 that the twenty-one months that Douglass traveled in the British Isles helped him develop ideas different from those of his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison. “Whereas Garrison refused to vote, Douglass wanted to exercise the right to vote and thereby affect policy. Whereas Garrison was a pacifist, Douglass was willing to use force and violence if necessary to resist slavery….Finally, Douglass wanted to found his own newspaper to give a forum to his ideas and those of other Afro-Americans. Thus Douglass founded the North Star in Rochelle, New York in partial competition with Garrison’s Liberator.”
Douglass’ transformative experiences in Ireland may have been due to the British Empire’s prescient relationship to the institution of slavery. Slavery ownership was abolished in England and Wales in 1772 and in Scotland in 1776.
But perhaps the most important date for all the British Abolitionist movement was 1833 when all slave ownership was made illegal throughout all realms of the British Empire and slave traders were deemed pirates and pursed on the seas by Royal Navy ships.
When Douglass spoke in Belfast and other cities in Ireland, he was speaking to a country with no slavery and few Africans, but he was calling upon Christians on both sides of the Atlantic to condemn slavery of be damned.
African descendents have returned to the British Isles in later years to see the shore where wrote “ instead of the bright, blue sky of American, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe and lo! the chattel become a man!”
In 1939, actor Paul Robeson had the opportunity to make what some critics consider his finest film, The Proud Valley. Set in a Welsh valley, Robeson plays the role of miner with a fine voice who is completely accepted by the community which is beset by economic strife and unsafe mines. But one of the miners remarks, “Down here in the mine we all look as black as one another. Down here race or color does not matter; we are all the same, all workers and friends together.” Today the miners in Wales still honor Robeson’s depiction of their plight with celebrations.
In 1986, the late African American filmmaker St. Clair Bourne took five African American activists to Northern Ireland to discover common elements of the Irish Republican Army’s struggles to free themselves from British domination with the black liberation struggle in the United States. The Black and the Green is hailed as a masterpiece by documentary historians.
Recently, a West Indian black Londoner, Steve McQueen succeeded in seeing his feature length film, Hunger, which shows in graphic detail the brutal treatment of IRA prisoners in a British prison followed by Irish leader Bobby Sands conscious decision to starve himself to death, achieve a theatrical release in the United States.
Hunger won the prestigious Camera d’Or for Best First Film last year in Cannes last year. Director McQueen says of his sympathies which moved him to tears on the set, “I essentially identify with both sides in the Irish conflict. I show what prisoner officers did, but also what they went through. I can see why they did the job. It was incredibly well-paid and there was not much work about. And they were brutalized, too. And many of them were murdered by the IRA. I show that, too.' He pauses again, struggling to find the words. 'It's difficult, it's difficult, it's incredibly problematic, but I am an artist. I have no answers to the bigger political questions.”
McQueen had to direct a scene of baton-wielding prison officers beating a group of naked Irish detainees in a prison. The actors were actually being beaten. He says of the final take: “I jumped up and started shouting “NO! No! Cut! Wd just have to stop. Just cut! Now!”
Frederick Douglass could not end slavery by yelling Cut! But we can all remember this man whose freedom was purchased by friends on both sides of the Atlantic. These compatriots paid his former “master” $711 for his freedom so he could return to inspire Obama among many others.
Douglass may have had a lasting influence on Ireland’s generations as well; the Emerald isle has welcomed many African immigrants to its shores over the years. A town 40 miles southwest of Dublin recently elected its first African mayor. When a Dublin African born high school student was deported to Nigeria in 2005, his Irish high schoolmates protested so effectively that he won return to Ireland.
There are no leprechauns at the end of the rainbow of struggle for human rights waiting with a pot of gold. Coins of pride, dignity, and sharing are the currency one jingles in one’s pocket as Frederick Douglass clutched the false identity papers that helped him print a strong identity for all. He may have taken hope from the very name of the ship he boarded. Cambria was the Roman word for the country called Wales—it was the only part of the present British Isles which the Roman soldiers could not conquer. I hope we all had a Happy St Patrick’s Day.