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Giving Voice to Unsung Hero Anna Murray Douglass

Writer M. Nzadi Keita spent the last decade gathering material on Anna Murray Douglass, whose role in American and abolitionist history alongside her more celebrated husband has been overlooked.

For five of those years, Keita, an Associate Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Ursinus College, lived among photographs of the Frederick Douglass family on her study walls, asking questions and reading the photos for clues. Anna, who was illiterate, left no letters or speeches.

The result of the painstaking research is Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Murray Douglass, recently published by Whirlwind Press. She will read from the book this Feb. 22 at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy section, and has been giving readings this month, including Feb. 10 at Ursinus College. Another reading is planned for March 28 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

The book is a collection of poems from the perspective of Douglass, her family, and other historical figures during a turbulent era in American history.  

Anna Murray Douglass (1813-1882) was born in Denton, Md., and was the first wife of the influential writer and orator Frederick Douglass. It was the free-born Anna who encouraged and helped Douglass escape slavery. She helped support her husband and five children and in Rochester, N.Y., she established a headquarters for the Underground Railroad from her home.

“Anna Murray Douglass’s vision, intellect, financial management, love, and devotion enabled us to know the brilliant writer and inspirational figure who became Frederick Douglass,” says Keita. “She financed his escape from enslavement. She worked alongside him in the Underground Railroad Movement. She actively devoted her life to abolishing slavery and asserting Black Americans’ rights to full citizenship. Subsequent movements are all part of her legacy, whether Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Studies, Women’s Rights, Anti-Racism, or Black Lives Matter.”

Douglass is given a persona through Keita’s poetry. “Poetry is my first instinct with regard to writing,” Keita explains. “Secondly, the juxtaposition of her situation was utterly poetic: she was born free and marries a freedom-seeker. She helped him reach freedom, yet many in the abolitionist movement disrespected her. Abolition was a common passion for the Douglasses, yet its politics undermined them as a couple. Her husband was the most vibrant black writer of the 19th century and she never learned to read and write in a conventional sense. He is hailed as a women’s rights advocate but did not credit his wife’s abolitionist work in print. Among most women she encountered, black and white, she was most likely alienated. To quote the poet Lucille Clifton, Anna Murray Douglass “had no model.” The emotional nuances, complexities, and silences shaping this black woman’s unique life made poetry the only option.”

A resident of Philadelphia’s Germantown section, Keita is a widely recognized poet. Her first book of poems, Birthmarks, was published by Nightshade Press. Her work has appeared on public television, and in many poetry journals. Among several anthologies containing Keita’s work are Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry in the 21st Century,The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and others. She has received grants and fellowships for community-based arts activities and has worked in collaboration with community organizations including Moonstone Arts Center, Germantown Arts Roundtable, and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project.

The research for Brief Evidence of Heaven was done over roughly 10 years, including two or so years of research, almost 3 years of generating raw material, and over the past 5 years, digging out poems from the raw notes, revising, and assembling. “When I started seriously pursuing this idea in 2004, I had       reread Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and multi-volume biography, TheLife and Times of Frederick Douglass, so I knew he rarely mentioned her.For the next two years, I researched historical sources on him, trying to collect what I hoped would give me an indirect sense of Mrs. Douglass as historians had viewed her. That was mostly fruitless, although I found value in the startling dismissals and unsupportable judgments of Mrs. Douglass that some historians chose to print—as well as the telling silences that most perpetuated.”

She also discovered a novel, Douglass’s Women, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. “I was thrilled to read it, simply to see how another writer had envisioned Anna Murray Douglass, and –equally— to plunder the bibliography.” She considers her greatest find The Frederick Douglass Papers on the Smithsonian website, from which she gained a sense of the family, their lifestyle, and even the voice of 10-year-old daughter Annie Douglass, in a letter to her father written three months before her death. “The greatest gem in the archive was a booklet that Rosetta Douglass Sprague wrote called My Mother As I Recall Her. No one else had written about Anna Murray Douglass as a multi-dimensional human being. This book came from the oldest and only daughter who lived to adulthood, so it conveyed intimacy, not just facts.”

Reviewers are intrigued. E. Ethelbert Miller, critic and author of The Fifth Inning, wrote that the book “joins a new tradition of African American poetry.” Joanne V. Gabbin, director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, wrote that that “Keita’s words drag us into a history that we think we know but are unaware of the layers of epidermis that must be scraped to get to the truth.”

Keita sees the process as validating poetry as a literary format. “Others have said that this book operates within a tradition among contemporary African-American poets in which our work turns to history to complicate, question, and reinterpret. I hope that the book provokes people to realize that poetry can operate this way: engaging other disciplines (for example, History, American Studies, Women’s Studies) while staying conscious of its own take on shape and sound.”

Currently the book is available by ordering it at briefevidence@yahoo.com.