‘If I survive’
Professor unravels new Frederick Douglass book
EASTON — Professor of Black Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Celeste-Marie Bernier discussed her new book “If I Survive” on Saturday, Sept. 8, in the Waterfowl Festival building.
The 860-page work, selling for about $19, is a collection of previously unpublished essays, speeches, autobiographies and letters of the Douglass family. The author said she has spent 20 years researching Frederick Douglass, reading everything he wrote.
The event opened with a music selection from Friends in Faith,
comprising three gospel singers and self-acclaimed history buffs.
Eric Lowery, president of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society; Patrick Rogan, creator and designer of the Shore Explorations Frederick Douglass exhibit in the Waterfowl building; and Priscilla Morris, a local historian, all aided in the introduction of Bernier.
Rogan informed the audience how, through conversations with youth at Easton Middle School, students will be brought in to create exhibition prototypes.
“How did Douglass become the most inspirational social reformer the world had ever seen?” Bernier asked. “How did he become the political thinker that changed presidential policy?
“How did he help women, children and men, bleeding and dying on their journey from the prison house of bondage to his home in Rochester, seeking freedom from the underground railroad?”
“How did he become editor on the most longstanding, most politically powerful newspaper written and produced by AfricanAmericans in the 19th century?”
“He did not work alone,” Bernier said. “Anna Murray, Rosetta Douglass, Lewis Henry Douglass, Charles Remond Douglass, Frederick Douglass Jr. and Annie Douglass were revolutionary and were radicals.”
Bernier took the audience on a winding journey of letters and photographs included in her book, often reciting the Douglass family’s words from memory.
In speaking to the opening music selection, Bernier said, “For Frederick Douglass, music was salvation.”
“‘Anyone who suffers the pain of the mind, let them take to music and it will heal them,’” she said, quoting Douglass.
Working through the letters projected onto a screen, Bernier revealed Douglass’ desolation, loneliness and pain, but also his family’s steadfast support for him.
“As the most photographed American, black or white, in the 19th century, a man renowned for his beauty, the question of pain, ugliness and a sense of dehumanization plagued him all his life,” the author said.
Frederick Douglass’s daughter, Rosetta, sought to reassure him, Bernier said. “Please do not grow despondent, I am here with you,” the author read aloud, quoting Rosetta’s letter.
Bernier shared with her audience that Douglass’ youngest daughter, Annie, was one of the earliest radical revolutionaries and political thinkers in the family
“At age 10, Annie Douglass was an intellectual, bilingual working in German, a thinker and herself engaged and supported the John Brown revolution.”
According to surgeons, there was a congestion on Annie’s brain, brought on by stress, resulting in her death at 10 years old.
“She died in distress and tragedy ,thinking about what happened to John Brown” (an abolitionist who was hanged), Bernier said, “and in anxiety and terror of what will happen to her father.”
“Only in the last couple of years
had we known her history existed.”
Later in her discussion, Bernier said, “The question for Frederick Douglass was ... how to survive the scars of slavery. How to physically escape but also how to be mentally, spiritually and emotionally free.”
“In understanding the life of Frederick Douglass, we do not in 2018 need a Frederick Douglass that is a mythological icon,” she said. “We need a Frederick Douglass connected to grassroots community activism.”
The author said archives need only be reviewed for two seconds before seeing Harriet Bailey, Douglass’ mother, taught him to read and write, not whites.
“The black female activists in his life were definitive,” she said.
Later she said, “This question of bodies and souls translating to dollars and cents lived with Douglass throughout his life in slavery, and lived with him throughout his life in freedom.”
Bernier concluded by saying the purpose of her research is to share with others, passing lessons on. She said she is working with radical educators on the East and West Coast to get the story into curriculum.
Speaking to the efforts of the Douglass family, Bernier said, “Theirs was a move toward a new dawn of liberty.”
Celeste-Marie Bernier was all smiles after her discussion on her new book, “If I Survive.”