Frederick Douglass, H.D.: Egypt Again

Janurary 2, 2013

She never mentioned him and probably never read him.  Still, he anticipated her.

Visiting Egypt in 1887, Douglass wrote: “I do not know of what color and features the ancient Egyptians were, but the great mass of the people I have yet seen would in America be classified as mulattoes and negroes.   This would not be a scientific description, but an American description.  I can easily see why the Mohomidan religion commends itself to these people, for it does not make color the criterion of fellowship as some of our so called Christian nations do.  All colors are welcome to the faith of the prophet.”

An analytic arc from Egypt back to the United States, then an astonishing leap to a color-blind Islam – exactly the point that Malcolm X would make in his Autobiography.

None of this was on H.D.’s mind.  Her Egypt is much more mythic, idiosyncratic, a matter of hearsay, but not without its political thrust.

Citing Stesichorus of Sicily as her authority, H.D. claims, in Helen in Egypt, that “Helen was never in Troy.  She had been transposed or translated into Egypt.  Helen of Troy was a phantom, substituted for the real Helen…  The Greeks and the Trojans alike fought for an illusion.”

Egypt: a land of transposition and translation, female, it seems, and a shelter for Helen, offering her refuge from the war-like, phantom-fighting Greeks and Trojans.

In 1848 Douglass attended the Seneca Falls convention, signed its petition, and wrote in the North Star that “there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the elective franchise.”   H.D. would have been pleased.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
This entry was posted in Africa, ancient Greece, Christianity, Classics, Comparative literature, Egypt, Gender, Global South, Islam, Modernist poetry, Poetry, Race, slavery, Translation, Twentieth century literature, Wars, world literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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