Monday, June 13, 2011

Narrative of a June Day: Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and Fly Fishing Maryland's Eastern Shore

Seldom do I encounter a moment when my professional interests intersect with my outdoor recreational pursuits in a striking, drop-everything-I'm-doing kind of way. Such a moment occurred this past Saturday, when I spent a few hours roaming around Maryland's Eastern Shore. My wife recently received an internship at a former tobacco plantation, and while she worked at the museum, I explored the area. I ended up along the banks of the Sassafras River. While there, I took in the following scene (image #1).

As the image shows, I was gazing at a Chesapeake Bay-area vista. In the distance, a sailboat with a white sail bobbed in the current, moored fast to a marine structure. Rising above the water was an antebellum mansion, undoubtedly built, staffed, and run by slaves. It was easy to image this scene a scant 160 years ago, when chattel slavery drove the Eastern Shore's agricultural economy. In fact, the further you drive off the Eastern Shore beaten path (and by beaten I mean paved) the more you begin to feel like you've been sucked into a time portal. Indeed, miles upon miles of crop-laden fields stretch out in front of you, unbroken except for dirt pathways utilized by tractors and horses; "Big Houses" stand sentinel over the fields, stark reminders that this nation's slavery-legacy is always already visible; small outbuildings that once served as slave-houses still dot the landscape, some of which are now used by Latino immigrants (ah, historical symmetry, thou art heartless); and the recently-arrived Amish fill the roads and fields with buggies, horse-drawn open carriages, and delightfully rustic attire. Yeah, if you take a turn down a dirt road on the Eastern Shore, you end up in the 19th century (I'm deadly serious: if you take out the power lines and the pavement, some parts of the area are literally unchanged).

The totality of this experience, of being time-warped, of seeing the Big Houses still standing, made me think of Frederick Douglass, one of my favorite 19th century writers. A self-proclaimed "Eastern Shoreman," Douglass spent his childhood, adolescence, and parts of his adulthood enslaved on a number of Eastern Shore plantations. His homeland, though, was located about fifty miles south of where I was. The spirit of his humanity, his words, and his rememories (h/t T. Morrison), though, haunt the entirety of the Eastern Shore. For example, Douglass wrote the following in his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845):

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships.

Douglass's white-clad sailing vessels and his enslavement hit me hard as I stood looking at a sailboat and a Big House in 2011. I thought about the historical people who toiled their lives away; who looked out at passing ships and asked the question "Why am I a slave?"; who, like Douglass, ran away to the north, breathing a momentary sigh of relief when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line (a line that sits only 2 miles south of where I'm writing this post).

I also thought about the material conditions of Eastern Shore slavery. Why, you may ask, did I start ruminating on this topic? I confess that it was because of the fly fishing rod that I held in my right hand. See, I wasn't anticipating traveling back in time during my five hours on the Eastern Shore. I wasn't searching for antebellum mansions or former slave quarters or Amish buggies; no, I was looking for a place to fish. But sometimes history and rememories get in the way of outdoor leisure, especially if you are keyed in to them, like academics tend to be.

I couldn't help but wonder, then, about the history of slavery and fishing. I knew from my research that slaves augmented their food supply by tending their own gardens and hunting with makeshift weaponry (and with firearms, on occasion). But I seldom read passages about slaves turning to the waterways for food. I searched Douglass's narrative, though, and found the following passage: "Colonel Lloyd's slaves were in the habit of spending a part of their nights and Sundays in fishing for oysters, and in this way made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance." Now, oysters aren't necessary rockfish or bream, but Douglass nevertheless describes the process of using marine life to off-set starvation. Furthermore, a brief search of the 1930s Federal Writer's Project's compilation of slave narratives turns up over 100 mentions of the word "fishing." Clearly, American slaves turned to the water, to the fish, and to the land when their owners failed to provide them with adequate "allowance."

I think this helps explains Douglass's deep-seated attachment to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. For him, the Bay was a path to freedom (he traveled alongside it during his successful train-based escape), a provider of sustenance, a non-participator in the evil institution of slavery. Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and the Bay would always be his homeland, even as he built a life for himself in New York. It is not surprising, then, that Douglass issued the following statement in 1877: "I am an Eastern Shoreman, with all that name implies. Eastern Shore corn and Eastern Shore pork gave me my muscle. I love Maryland and the Eastern Shore."

He could have added Eastern Shore fish to his list, too.

1 comment:

Bruce Edward Litton said...

Matt, we love the Eastern shore, all the way down to Cape Charles. On the way to Ocracoke, NC, we will follow Route 13 down through it in six weeks. Have fly fished twice in past three weeks. Each time caught a rainbow about a foot long, but each time no hatches emerged. Bruce