The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

9. Ethnology and Equality

In 1887 during a European honeymoon tour with Helen, Douglass, acting upon a gnawing compulsion, decided to visit Egypt. His motivation was at once personal, ideological, and scholarly. "I had a theory for which I wanted the support of facts in the range of my own knowledge." He wanted to use his observations of contemporary Egyptian society and culture and the remains of its past to decide whether the ancient Egyptians were primarily Negroid. He had assumed as much at least since the 1850s. If his findings supported this assumption, the knowledge could be used to fight "American prejudice against the darker colored races of mankind, and at the same time to raise colored people somewhat in their own estimation and thus stimulate them to higher endeavors." Essentially, therefore, the trip was designed to serve "an ethnological purpose." 1

From Paris in November 1886, Douglass had explained: "I have long been interested in Ethnology -- especially of the North African races. I have wanted the evidence of greatness under a colored skin to meet and beat back the charge of natural, original, and permanent inferiority of the colored races of men." 2 Rather than a disinterested empirical or scientific inquiry, for Douglass, ethnology was an interpretation of historical and sociocultural data reflecting his own biases. Indeed, he never labored under the delusions of detachment or objectivity. More important to him than mere ethnological data and interpretation were the moral, religious, humanist, ideological, and political bases and ramifications of ethnology and, especially, their consistent use to support white racism. Douglass's ethnological thought, then, formed an integral component of his continuing commitment to struggle both for black freedom and equality and against white racism. When considered together, nineteenthcentury ethnology and Douglass's ethnological thought prove mutually illuminating.

Nineteenth-century ethnology, a key predecessor of twentieth-century anthropology, was the comparative study of human cultural variation, change, and development. 3 Because ethnology typically assumed an inextricable relationship between both cultural and historical development, it also constituted a form of cultural history. Practitioners of a broad and allegedly scientific discipline, ethnologists in the nineteenth century attempted to uncover the stages and meanings of human developments primarily in cultural and related physical terms and secondarily in historical terms. Nineteenth-century eth

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The Mind of Frederick Douglass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part One - The Shape of a Life 1
  • 1 - The Formative Years and Beyond 3
  • 2 - Abolitionism: the Travail of a "Great Life's Work" 18
  • 3 - The Politics of a Race Leader 55
  • 4 - Humanism, Race, and Leadership 92
  • Part Two - Social Reform 107
  • 5 - The Ideology of White Supremacy 109
  • 6 - Feminism, Race, and Social Reform 136
  • 7 - The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform 165
  • Part Three - National Identity, Culture, and Science 195
  • 8 - A Composite American Nationality 197
  • 9 - Ethnology and Equality 225
  • Part Four - The Autobiographical Douglass 251
  • 10 - Self-Made Man, Self-Conscious Hero 253
  • Epilogue 281
  • Notes 285
  • Bibliography 309
  • Index 317
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