Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” and the Many Visions of Frederick Douglass

Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” and the Many Visions of Frederick Douglass

Hired out to the brutal Edward Covey, a young Frederick Douglass worked to exhaustion during the week and spent Sundays “in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree,” alternating between flashes of “energetic freedom” and “mourning,” he wrote in his Narrative. Beyond the woods, on the broad Chesapeake Bay, sailed “beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen . . . to me so many shrouded ghosts.” With time, “My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.”[1]

Frederick Douglass did not know his birthday but believed it to be February 1818, a year and a few months before Walt Whitman’s May 1819 arrival along northern waters in Suffolk County, New York. Whitman elegized a nineteenth-century expansive creativity in “Song of Myself, 51.” “The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them./And proceed to fill my next fold of the future….Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”[2]

It is easy to divide the harborside writers into neat categories: the white poet, the Black activist. But even more than Whitman, Douglass contained multitudes, however much we might seek to fix him as a prophet, a politician, a guide. More consistently than Whitman, Douglass sought to unsettle our sense of what we know and how we know it.

So, too, the celebrated installation artist Isaac Julien aims to unsettle our senses in his mesmerizing multi-screen film exhibition “Lessons of the Hour,” commissioned by the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Past and present wilt in images of Douglass in repose, in action, and in mourning.

Already, a few weeks after my most-recent viewing, Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” seems a vivid but vague dream, unnervingly powerful and unnervingly difficult to describe. It resists the reviewer’s ultimate escape—the invitation to just go see for yourself—since it is only available selectively. Like a dream it feels private, something that should not be spoken of, yet like something that must be spoken of, with urgency.

 

Multi-screen images of actor portraying Frederick Douglass in a dark exhibition space.
Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour, 2019 (installation view, detail), ten-screen installation, 35mm film and 4k digital, color, 7.1 surround sound. 28’46”. Courtesy of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.

Writing about a filmmaker as gorgeous as Julien, and a writer as intricate as Douglass, is like eulogizing your favorite orator. You must describe the very standard you will not be able to meet. Still it is worth a try.

For the recent installation at McEvoy Foundation of the Arts in the Dogpatch/Portrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, a mile down the San Francisco Bay from the Chase Center, Julien and his collaborator Mark Nash selected an entrance gallery of photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, both the iconic and the more timely and soon to be iconic. The back wall sets the tone of the exhibition: Lorraine O’Grady’s performance work Art Is…, images from Harlem’s 1983 African-American Day parade in which 15 young actors and dancers “dressed in white framed viewers with empty gold picture frames to shouts of ‘Frame me, make me art!’ And ‘That’s right, that’s what art is. We’re the art!’”[3] That frame, that joy, and that confusion evoke the artfulness of daily life and the artifice of designating its limits.

In the room beyond O’Grady’s images, Julien’s lustrous still images line a long gallery. Attendees see Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass on a train. Photographer J. P. Ball poses subjects in his studio. Ottilie Assing reads a book. From this gallery’s shadowy far end, noise rumbles from a dark entrance that is marked with red tape arrows and a sign explaining the necessary protocols. Inside the dark installation, five or six backless, elliptical ottomans face ten screens hanging from the ceiling, four quite large, six of smaller size.

If your timing is right, and you sit just as  as the film begins, the dark room lightens and then lightens some more. Douglass, inhabited by Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon, walks a path through the woods. It is fall. He is wearing an extraordinary full-length coat, a luxurious red. The screens divide. On some, the path, on others the woods, on others the back of Douglass’ head, on others his face, on others images elliptically connected to the words he begins to say. You see Douglass.  You see what he sees as well as the thoughts in his mind.

There is no introduction. Douglass, examining a large, oddly shaped tree stump, begins to talk about a mistake he made, a mistake of perception. Once, walking the woods, he thought a tree was a wild beast, until he approached closer and realized his error. It is all a question of vantage. For a moment, we ourselves join Douglass in that confused vantage, and see the woods through the ten different screens.

Then, the sound of a whip. A tree becomes a lynching tree; feet dangle and fade.

The screens fade and lighten. A woman, Anna Murray Douglass, played by Sharlene Whyte, solitary as Penelope, sews brilliantly blue fabric. On other screens, art on the walls, paintings, and a print of Fort Wagner are displayed. Douglass’s taste is visible; he himself is not.

And then he is, but not inside the home. Douglass’ voice tells us that he has traveled thousands of miles. The rhythm of the passenger train meets the rhythm of the sewing machine. Anna Murray Douglass in a house back in the United States, Frederick Douglass on a train bound northward through Scotland en-route to a lecture hall that Douglass enters to applause.

Already at least four Douglasses. The incarnation of white America’s cruelty. The lauded public speaker. The absent husband. And also, the visual theorist, familiar to scholars through the work of Celeste-Marie Bernier (whose work Julien draws richly upon), Deborah Willis, Aston Gonzalez, and many others.[4]

What, precisely, do people who are not scholars make of this Douglass, not oracle but essayist? I visited the exhibit twice during COVID, when people were sparse, masked, and distanced. During the six times I sat through the 30-minute film, I never was able to ask anyone that question.

Douglass begins his lecture, drawn from his 1861 address “Pictures and Progress,” with a mordantly funny observation about the boredom of staring at other people’s photographs. As Douglass speaks about the political and aesthetic problems of representation, we see multiple images: on some screens a crowd listens, on others Black photographer J. P. Ball arranges Anna Murray Douglass.

Douglass begins to speak of the agonies of slavery, words drawn from his familiar memoirs, and the images fade to gray. A whip sounds, crackling and evil. Cotton on one screen, on four, on ten, and Black hands picking it. And now, at last, we have arrived at the Douglass that most people, presumably, came to see: the witness to and critic of slavery. The rural silence of crickets hums unseen behind the fields. Scotland’s lecture halls feel far away.

Douglass then relates the famous line from his 1845 Narrative of the Life about never seeing his mother except for a few hurried visits at night. Just as we settle into the familiarity of the lines, we see and hear other people. Anna Richardson and Ellen Richardson, British Quakers who helped raise funds to purchase Douglass’ legal freedom, walk the beaches, writing Send Back the Money in the sand, singing the Scottish Free Church’s antislavery song of the same name. On other screens, Douglass walks the fields and cliffs and beaches of Scotland, alone. Images pass: paintings and sketches on walls; people in trains, a lit match that quiets the noise; and then the familiar Douglass line that learning to read had been a curse.

As Douglass begins to narrate his childhood in Fells Point, Baltimore, we enter several Baltimores, past and present. Some screens show FBI surveillance file footage of protests against the 2015 police murder of Freddie Gray. On other screens, other Baltimores appear: 19th century ships in the harbor, a helicopter ride over the touristic Inner Harbor of today. Douglass speaks of the terrible reality of the slave trade.

At last, the 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” and a montage of the horrors of patriotism. On some screens, fireworks revert into their cores, on others terrifying white people march in slow-motion 1950s parades. During my final visit, the prosecution was midway through the presentation of the evidence of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Of course this was a coincidence, and of course it was no coincidence at all.

The exhibition was completed long before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, yet his killing and the trial of his murderer run through the films nonetheless. The footage of future murders of Black men by police run through the films as well. Such is the power of Douglass’ prophecy, and of Julien’s artistry.

And then the prophet concludes with still-timely words about the shocking crimes of America “in this very hour,” meaning Douglass’s hour and our own, to building applause from a Scottish audience that is now much more diverse and more modernly dressed than in the opening frames. Water swells through the screens, as Douglass’s tone settles into one more reproach against patriotism (and the presumptions of American democracy): Douglass left republican America a slave and returned from monarchical England a free man.

Instead of this hero, Julien closes instead with a stranger, beautiful vantage: Darkness broken first by a beast: a magnificent horse that Douglass is walking through the Scottish countryside. The horse’s uncanny eye dominates one screen, Douglass alongside the horse in others. In another he climbs an ancient volcano. The horse is beautiful. The volcano is beautiful. Douglass is beautiful. Anna Murray Douglass’ sewing returns in a magnificent blue coat Douglass wears as he walks the horse. But what does all this beauty have to do with the horrors we have seen?

Instead of an answer, silence. The room settles into dark. A few moments later, the woods of Maryland. We have begun again, at the monstrous tree, prepared for our return passage through cruelty and back to the engulfing waters.

Long as my description has been, it is still entirely inadequate. With the exception of J. P. Ball, a partial vision of one of Douglass’ sons, and anonymous men in the Scottish audience, the exhibit is a meditation on the women in (and also kept out of) Douglass’ life: Anna Murray Douglass, Helen Pitts Douglass, Ottilie Assing, the Richardsons.[5]

When Douglass published My Bondage and My Freedom, his follow-up to the Narrative, his subtitle pointedly distinguished his life “as a slave” from his life “as a freeman.” So, too, did he document the struggles to turn freedom into equality. The free Douglass never stopped looking backward to slavery but also never stopped being the aesthete, in awe of beauty of the present. So, too, in “Lessons of the Hour,” the body of the films belong to Douglass the prophet and Douglass the slave, but the opening and closing place us with the free Douglass moving silently through a nature he remains in awe of.

 

1870 portrait of Frederick Douglass
Photo by George Francis Schreiber, April 26, 1870. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The films are immersive and humbling. They are many films, running in different combinations depending on your seat. From the back-center, an overwhelming montage. Up close, the images flicker out of the corner of the eye, like warnings.

What a peculiar dream it is. By the lights of sequential, cautious history, the films are a jumble, or more kindly an evocation. Douglass’ speech combines his 1845 memoirs, his 1852 July 4th speech, his 1861 address, and others. Anachronisms intrude, like the Fort Wagner image on the wall during a scene that seems to take place at least a decade before the 54th Massachusetts fought on those sands. For a history of Douglass that analyzes Douglass’s complexity in sequence and context, David Blight’s massive biography is surely the best place to turn, along with older biographies by Nathan Huggins and William S. McFeely.[6]

Julien unravels a different truth. He creates a reservoir of associations, in which Douglass is at once the runaway slave, the celebrated orator, the aging art critic, and the dignified family man; where the women in his life are always his lovers and also always his abandoned ones; where Douglass is always 13 and 23 and 35 and 67.

At my final visit, in that closing darkness, a gallerist woke us from the swim of our thoughts to remind us of the time, of the need to admit others into a space that had felt, in the watery silence, like our own secret. Outside, we blinked at San Francisco’s piercing light, checked phones for Floyd trial updates.

Two weeks earlier, tugs and machinery nudged the container ship Ever Given free from the banks of the Suez Canal, where Ever Given had clogged the world’s shipping lanes and inspired countless memes. Now, in front of us, as we read about the prosecution’s witnesses, rows of container ships filled the San Francisco Bay, backlogged in the crush of traffic, waiting for their chance to unload. One of them, anchored directly off Dogpatch, seemed to be that very ship Ever Given, painted green. For a moment, it staggered me, the world brought home so rapidly, to such a beautiful spot. But the ship in front of me turned out to be not Ever Given but its smaller, but otherwise nearly identical sister ship Ever Front. My eyes had deceived me.

 

[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself. (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 63-64, available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html.

[2] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself, 51,” available at https://poets.org/poem/song-myself-51.

[3]Art Is…performance 1983,” available at http://lorraineogrady.com/art/art-is/.

[4] Celeste-Marie Bernier, African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Bernier and Andrew Taylor, If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018); Bernier and Bill E. Lawson, eds., Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass, 1818-2018 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Willis, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual Hisotry of Conflict and Citizenship (New York: NYU Press, 2021); Willis, Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (New York: New Press, 1994); Aston Gonzalez, Visualing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright, 2015).

[5] For more on this subject, see Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[6] David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2018); Nathan Irvin Huggins, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980); William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Poliitics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007); Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1948); John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (New York: Twelve, 2008).

 

 

 

 

Greg Downs

Greg Downs is a Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.

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