The title of Ishmael Reed and Al Young’s anthology Yardbird Lives! jumps out, meets me, sits with me on the page. It’s a utopian exclamation, analogous in sentiment to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed,” the science-fictional revealed religion in her Parable novels. I think, too, of Hummingbird and Green Fly’s adventures “in time immemorial” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Read beside “Earthseed,” the others seem like allegories of space travel. Reed runs his Afrofuturism in a way similar to Sun Ra. Time and space travel are returned from Western futurity to their home in Ancient Egypt. In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo cosmology, travel involves movement among “the world of the people” and “worlds below.” In Frederick Douglass, we encounter a similar narrative of flight, do we not? Leaving behind the Garden-that-is-in-fact-a-Slave-Plantation, Douglass travels to another world. With Gary Snyder, meanwhile, the focus is on saving this world, the continent and world of Turtle Island, or what Snyder in another of his books calls Earth House Hold.
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
Upon finding employment on his third day in the Northern city of New Bedford, Frederick Douglass declares himself his own master. “I was now my own master,” he writes. This is a “happy moment” — one of the few such moments in Douglass’s narrative. Its rapture can be understood, he says, “only by those who have been slaves” (78). The scene leaves me wondering: at what point is there no longer someone robbing us of the rewards of our work? The employment Douglass has found is a form of wage slavery, is it not? Is the reward not taken in the setting of the wage by the capitalist? Are Marx and Engels wrong? In what sense is the wage relation not a form of slavery? Labor hours remain at the command of external masters under capitalism. The economy one faces is manufactured by the State, and the State is a mere police-backed conspiracy of land developers and financiers. All of us are in some way or another pressed into its service. Those of us in entertainment and education — those of us manning the ISAs, as Louis Althusser would say — we’re the functional equivalent of PsyOps officers. Yet we can always rebel — and many of us do. Wizards needn’t always be their wizards. There are fugitive histories to be learned, memories of fugitive ancestors awaiting remembrance through fugitive study. Because if the past isn’t past, as Faulkner wrote, and the demand on the streets is “NO COPS / NO JAILS / NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME,” then abolitionists are among us today, their cause as just as it was a century and a half ago.
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Every book is a monument of sorts. Which ones do we want on our shelves? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave appears on mine — or in my hands, rather. Acquisition of language — or more accurately, the acquisition not just of orality but also of literacy, learning to read and write: this is a major event in Douglass’s Narrative, as it is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the creature in Shelley’s book, this event is a tragic one. It’s that for Douglass, too, in that it brings him great sorrow. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” he writes, “with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” But for Douglass, this understanding brings with it a thing to be prized. “From that moment,” he tells us, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44).
Lo Lobey, the hero of Samuel R. Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection, does something radical. Through him, Delany gets readers to enter imaginatively into a cosmos where an Orpheus archetype overtakes and renders as a minor subplot the story of “Green-Eye,” the book’s Christ figure. For many other black authors, however, including nineteenth-century fugitive slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as black feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Christianity occupies a position of importance as bearer of myth. But in every case, it’s a Christianity “heard” and interpreted — Christianity turned into dialogue. Call and response. The Bible is rewritten from the perspective of the slave rather than from the perspective of those loyal to a lord or master. Douglass identifies a “divine Providence” acting upon his life, guiding him toward freedom. Butler, writing a century later in the America of the post-‘Civil Rights’ era, speaks not of Providence but of “change” — strongly distinguishing this god from the one worshipped by Christian American Crusaders. Which side are you on, y’all? Which side are you on?
Octavia E. Butler’s inclusion of a neo-slave narrative at the heart of her book Parable of the Talents leads me to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. A butterfly greets me at my window as I read, then floats off on its way. In a children’s book, we might follow the butterfly. But when the baby naps, we must reckon with Douglass. Born into slavery, he becomes a fugitive at twenty. Seven years later, in 1845, he authors his narrative.