Frederick Douglass, Family, and Biography

By Ezra Greenspan | Black Perspectives

A flurry of recent scholarship on Frederick Douglass has broadened coverage of his life to include that of his family.1 Given that scholarly turn, it seems appropriate to ask: what model of family best pertains to Frederick Douglass? I would like to suggest that Toni Morrison presents a provocative response in Song of Solomon (1977), her richly imagined novel about the history of an African American family coming—continuously coming—out of enslavement. One seemingly incidental moment signifies powerfully: protagonist Milkman Dead, scion of the patriarchal branch of the Dead family tree, makes his first entry into the wrong-side-of-the-tracks home of his paternal aunt, Pilate Dead, the family matriarch who lives with her unmarried daughter Reba and Reba’s teenaged daughter Hagar. Pilate takes one look at Milkman and introduces him to Hagar as “your brother.” Reba immediately corrects “brother” with “cousin,” yet Pilate stands her ground. In effect, she stands the novel’s ground: she embodies a collective ethos forged by once enslaved African American families from the crucible of historical disrupture, geographical displacement, lost or refracted memory, skewed generational lines, and fluid gender roles.

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