Two years ago, Amanda Chestnut, Rachel DeGuzman and I organized a celebration of Frederick Douglass’ 199th birthday at his gravesite in Mount Hope Cemetery.
The following year, in 2018, the city of Rochester was energized to mark Douglass’s 200th birthday with multiple community events. Part of this process of excavation included a work of art by Isaac Julien, commissioned by the Memorial Art Gallery.
Recently I went to see Lessons of the Hour—on view at the gallery through May 12—with two activist friends. According to Julien’s own website: “Lessons of the Hour is a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass, the ten-screen film installation proposes a contemplative journey into Douglass’ zeitgeist and its relationship to contemporaneity. The film includes excerpts of Douglass’ most arresting speeches and allusions to his private and public milieus.”
Isaac Julien’s tableaux vivants are gorgeous—that much is unequivocal. Together the 10 screens form a lengthened semicircle. Sitting on a comfortable bench against the back wall, one feels completely surrounded by and submerged in the piece.
As a filmmaker, I was immediately drawn to the polished cinematography. Fall leaves, multicolored and delicate as gauze, flutter as Douglass (played by actor Ray Fearon) saunters through the woods. Beach grass on the coast of Scotland, tall and finely combed, grounds Douglass and his beautiful steed in their bracing promenade. The camera takes us on a tour of Douglass’ home and meets him on a train, probably during one of his hectic speaking tours. We see the steam and crankshaft, we feel the pistons hard at work, pumping energy into the engine of the Industrial Revolution.
Douglass is always dressed to the nines, seen in vibrant crimson and royal blue overcoats that leap off the screen and endow him with aristocratic elegance. Image, and therefore photography, were important to Douglass. This is why, in addition to excerpts from his famous Fourth of July and lessons of the hour speeches, some of his thoughts from “Lecture on Pictures” are also included in the piece, and so are elaborate scenes in J. P. Ball’s photography studio.
Some of the most revealing words in the installation are taken from his 1845 memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which begins with the heartbreaking description of how his mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him soon after birth and his care entrusted to an older woman. This cruel practice was meant to extract as much labor as possible from young mothers, who went straight back to the plantation, but most importantly it disrupted the maternal bonding and emotional engagement so necessary for a child’s early development.
The artwork includes Douglass’ words: “I received the tidings of (my mother’s) death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
I wish it explained further how, on a few occasions, his mother walked 12 miles at night, after a hard day’s work, to be with him for a few hours. She had to get up and leave in the middle of the night to make it back the next day at sunrise. It’s an indelible image that encapsulates the stunning inhumanity of slavery and lends weight and context to Douglass’ words about his mother’s death.
There is much more in the book that could have been implied in the installation—the regular whippings and their disturbing intimacy that typified slave life, Douglass’ perseverance and ingenuity in learning to read and write, and his two-hour-long, hand-to-hand fight with the slave-breaker Covey, from which Douglass emerged victorious and emboldened to dream of freedom.
We hear the sound of the lash. It’s brusque and unnerving. We are given fragmentary glimpses of Douglass’ past—his scarred back, the crack of the whip, and perhaps most brutally truthful of all, black-and-white footage of feet dangling from a lynched body. This image, projected for a short time on a single screen, is made even more compelling by coupling it with Douglass’ words from his 1855 book, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” in which he talks about his childhood journey from Tuckahoe to the Wye plantation where he was to start work as a slave, his fear of the woods, the comfort of being accompanied by his grandmother (his caregiver), and his comprehension of relative perspective:
“She often found me increasing the energy of my grip, and holding her clothing, lest something should come out of the woods and eat me up. Several old logs and stumps imposed upon me, and got themselves taken for wild beasts. I could see their legs, eyes, and ears, or I could see something like eyes, legs, and ears, till I got close enough to them to see that the eyes were knots, washed white with rain, and the legs were broken limbs, and the ears, only ears owing to the point from which they were seen. Thus early I learned that the point from which a thing is viewed is of some importance.”
The use of these words to reactivate the horror of lynching is powerful. But the story of slavery could have been more present. For example, although cotton fields are shown in the video, they appear as closeups of creamy cotton plants bouncing daintily in the breeze. An old black-and-white photograph of slaves in cotton fields flashes on a screen, but it’s not enough to give us a sense of what that labor looked like or felt like—backbreaking work and bleeding fingers, interminable hours in the baking sun, constant sweat, dirt, and the torture of the whip. We get no sense of this ugly oppression; rather, the fields are lyricized into an ode to nature and high-definition cinematography. Even when we are shown footage of hands picking cotton, the sleeves are gracefully folded back, white as snow and immaculately clean.
Later in the installation, the injection of short interludes of reality continues with black-and-white drone footage of the Baltimore riots, shot at night, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s killing. In an interview with the Guardian, Julien said: “The FBI footage we use in the piece is looking at the way in which crowds congregate in situations of unrest. From the late 19th century to the 21st century, I’m looking at civil unrest in a situation where an African American man was killed.” Yet the aerial shots and their radiographic quality create distance between reality’s flesh and blood and the artist’s exquisitely controlled simulation.
In the same Guardian article, Julien explains how Douglass was “interested in photography because of the role of autonomy it gave him over his own self-representation, as opposed to the ones that were being captured and stereotyped; black men and women were being presented in derogatory imagery. He saw photography as a savior of representing a regime of truth or person.”
Perhaps Julien is looking to continue this process of empowerment through image-making, but the risk is to produce a rootless depiction of Douglass by unmooring him from the gritty Black history that made him in the first place.
This metaphorical detachment is noticeable in both the private and public spheres.
Although the installation can be lauded for the inclusion of key women, it doesn’t highlight Anna Murray Douglass’ sway over her husband’s life and work. He lived 44 years with Murray (played by Sharlene Whyte) and another 11 after her death, yet she is all but disappeared from the tableaux vivants after her initial share of screen time, to make room for other, mostly white, women. There is no mention of the five children Douglass had with her: Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, Rosetta, and Annie.
When Annie died in 1860, before she turned 11, Douglass was in Scotland. He had fled the country after being implicated in John Brown’s failed raid of the Federal Arsenal, at Harpers Ferry, and risked arrest to return to his wife and mourn the loss of their child—an incredibly moving and important juncture in their lives.
Murray held the fort in his absence, supporting the family by mending shoes. This fierce independence and ability to survive are not apparent in the installation’s repeated scenes of demure seclusion, focusing on Murray and her sewing machine. With her five children and busy household, I wonder if such retiring moments were even possible in her youth or middle years.
Instead of plush overcoats, I longed to see her stitching a sailor uniform, the disguise Douglass used to escape to freedom on a train. Murray had sold a bed in order to cobble together the money for his ticket.
The personal intersected forcefully with the public when Murray opened up her Rochester home to runaway slaves, turning it into an Underground Railroad stop on the way to Canada. Harriet Tubman brought slaves to the Douglass house and stayed there as a guest, yet she is missing from this artwork.
I understand Rochester’s instinct to mention Susan B. Anthony in the same breath as Frederick Douglass, but if abolition was the thrust of Douglass’ mission in life, perhaps we could center the coming together of two abolitionist leaders, whose lives converged right here in our city.
All in all, Julien’s video installation tells a visually splendid story, punctuated by a few terse, physical representations of slavery. It doesn’t ground Douglass in his marriage, his children, his Blackness. It evades the hideousness and savagery of bondage and forced labor, in order to construct mythic imagery.
Although I agree that photographs of brutalized bodies, especially when they belong to oppressed communities, dehumanize and normalize further violence, prioritizing sanitized visuals over rougher, less agreeable sounds and images can also be tricky. It takes away a lot of the discomfort that real talk might induce in an audience. It makes art easier to digest, but one has to question its message, its gloss, its commercial invincibility.
Originally published in the Rochester Beacon.