By A. Robert Lee
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Extra resources for Designs of Blackness: Studies in the Literature of African-America
Foremost a writer. Above all a writer. It was my salvation, and is. The world can deny me as an ex-convict, as a nigger, as a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But as long as I write, whether it is published or not, I’m a writer, and no one can take that away. ‘A fighter fights, a writer writes,’ so I must have done my writing. (p. 35 This embattled contrariety of blackness and word continues in My Life of Absurdity: the moves back and forth across Europe and America; the edgy literary friendships in Paris and elsewhere with Richard Wright, a white 1920s veteran like Carl Van Vechten, the Caribbean born George Lamming, Europeans like Jean Giono and Marcel Duhamel, African Americans from Malcolm X to John A.
What had his true name been? Whatever it was, it was as Douglass that he became himself, defined himself. And not as a boatwright as he’d expected, but as an orator. Perhaps the sense of magic lay in the unexpected transformations. ‘You start Saul, and end up Paul,’ my grandfather had often said. ’5 Nor is the impact of Douglass, and his acquisition of the written word, lost on a contemporary like Darryl Pinckney in his High Cotton (1992). The narrator invokes his grandfather seated at a New York Upper East Side library reading about Douglass: He said that what fascinated him most about the ‘back years’ was the story of how young Frederick Douglass, driven by the sound of his master reading from the Book of Job, stole a primer and copied the letters on pieces of pine plank ...
Who ordained these rules of miscegenation and racial genetics? When is white black, black white, and where, implies Douglass, does that leave him? In the Edward Covey fight, ‘the turning point in my career as a slave’, Douglass achieves far more than some local set-to with his overseer. The pugilism possesses the prose itself, each feint, grip, release or hit taken into and made the very rhythm of the telling. In this, too, Douglass anticipates a later history of black–white pugilism through names like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali in which white oppression, whiteness as the historic code of ownership, albeit for the moment, is fought into dispossession and defeat.