Frederick Douglass and the White Negro
Frederick Douglass and the White Negro (also known under the Irish language title Frederick Douglass agus na Negroes Bána) tells the story of the 19th century ‘Barack Obama’ and his escape from slavery, leading to refuge in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine. The film focuses on the powerful influence Ireland had on Frederick Douglass as a young man. It also explores the turbulent relationship between African Americans and Irish Americans in general.
The relationship is exposed by director John J Doherty (dir. Harry Clarke – Darkness In Light) as a complex and tragic sequence of events culminating in the bloodiest riot in American history. This transatlantic story covers the race issue and is as relevant today as it was when Frederick Douglass escaped to Ireland. In the words of Frederick Douglass in his memoir “I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life…I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip telling me ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!’”
“While so much has been written about Frederick Douglass, this film is a refreshingly original look at a largely unknown part of his life – his extraordinary experience in Ireland. Aside from revealing a piece of history long obscured, the film gives us a fascinating glimpse into the relations between Irish and African-Americans. This will be a wonderful educational tool for students of all ages.” Howard Zinn (see more publicity and reviews lower down the page)
Winner: Best Film Depicting the Black Experience – Berlin Black International Cinema Festival
Writer/Director: John J Doherty Producer: Catherine Lyons Camera: Ronan Fox/Martin Birney/John J Doherty Editor: Juris Eksts Music: Cyril Dunnion/Gerard Meaney
a camel production in association with: The Irish Film Board/MEDIA/TG4/BCI
Frederick Douglass and the White Negro
Frederick Douglass and the White Negro is a documentary telling the story of ex-slave, abolitionist, writer and politician Frederick Douglass and his escape to Ireland from America in the 1840s. After his escape from slavery and writing his autobiography which included all the actual names of his ‘owners’ to prove he was telling the truth, his only option was to leave his family behind and flee the United States of America since now his life was in danger. The film follows Douglass’ life from slavery as a young man through to his time in Ireland where he befriended Daniel O’Connell famous at the time in America for his support of the anti-slavery movement as he fought for Catholic emancipation in Ireland. Frederick Douglass toured the country, as an escaped slave, spreading the message of abolition and was treated as a human being, to his surprise, for the first time by white people as he noted later in the second edition of his autobiography My Bondage and my Freedom (1855). His arrival in Ireland coincided with the Great Famine and he witnessed white people in what he considered to be a worse state than his fellow African Americans back in the US. The film follows Douglass back to America where he is able to buy his freedom with money raised in Ireland and Britain (he even had enough left over to start his own abolitionist newspaper The North Star). Fellow passengers on his return journey include the Irish escaping the famine who arrive in their millions with very little and would go on to play a major role in the New York Draft Riot of 1863 where so many innocent black people were murdered and which Douglass could only despair over. The film examines (with contributions from the author of How The Irish Became White Noel Ignatiev amongst others) the turbulent relationship between African Americans and Irish Americans during the American Civil War, what drew them together and what drove them apart and how this would shape the America of the twentieth century and the era of Barack Obama.
PUBLICITY / REVIEWS (Frederick Douglass) –
Donal O’Kelly (Writer/Actor ‘The Cambria’ a play based on Frederick Douglass’ sea-crossing from America to Ireland as an escaped slave) on the Frederick Douglass film –
The documentary I’ve just seen on TG4 is the best thing I’ve seen on television in years. I am in awe that you managed to combine such political clarity with such entertaining (and wonderfully-crafted) presentation. The spirit of challenge was expressed not just in the content but in the form as well. And you found out that the Garda Immigration Bureau is where the Conciliation Hall used to be!!! How on earth .. ? You are quite obviously accomplished geniuses. My hat’s off to you, I’m uplifted (rare event!) that you have created such an inspiring documentary out of the material, a lot of which was new to me. An Oscar wouldn’t be good enough.
Howard Zinn (Author of the bestseller A People’s History of the United States) on the Frederick Douglass movie –
While so much has been written about Frederick Douglass, this film is a refreshingly original look at a largely unknown part of his life – his extraordinary experience in Ireland. Aside from revealing a piece of history long obscured, the film gives us a fascinating glimpse into the relations between Irish and African-Americans. This will be a wonderful educational tool for students of all ages.
Sunday Business Post, January 25th 2009, Frederick Douglass reviewed by Emmanuel Kehoe –
Are you amused by the antics of Offaly villages claiming rights to the white bit of Obama? The Reclaim the White campaign? Maybe they watched John J Doherty’s excellent documentary Frederick Douglass agus na Negroes Bána (TG4). The story of an escaped slave who became a brilliant orator, abolitionist and feminist and who spent time in Ireland during the famine. Douglass met and admired Daniel O’Connell and said of his time here: “ I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man! I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult.” Sadly, Douglass’s feeling for the Irish must have been tried during the ghastly New York Draft riots of 1863 in which mobs, among them many Irish, lynched numbers of black people and burned a black children’s orphanage.
History Ireland Magazine, May/June 2008 Vol 16 No. 3, Frederick Douglass reviewed by Dr John Gibney, National University of Ireland –
“There is a very dark side to the story of Frederick Douglass and his relationship to Ireland, but its complexity is unflinchingly revealed in this excellent documentary. Brilliantly made with a funky soundtrack, this was everything that The Importance of Being Irish [RTE documentary] was not: gripping, intelligent, original and thought-provoking.”
Documentaries aren’t usually my thing – too hard, too tiring, too much like school – but for this one I’ll make an exception. This fascinating programme tells the story of Frederick Douglass, a black man who escaped slavery in 19th century America and fled across the Atlantic to take refuge in Ireland at the height of the Great Famine. An extraordinary look at a life that proves life is stranger than fiction.
Irish Times, Jan 24 2009, Frederick Douglass reviewed by Hilary Fanin –
Super duper Tuesday
To mark this historic turning point [inauguration of Barack Obama], TG4 screened Frederick Douglass and the White Negro, a moving and funkily told story which illuminated the life of an inspirational man (and hero of Obama’s), the freed slave, orator, political dynamo, feminist and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass, having endured from the age of seven, brutality, hardship and degradation, on various southern plantations, eventually escaped his captors, becoming a writer, activist and fugitive, who arrived in Ireland in 1845. Here he enjoyed the society of Daniel O’Connell who described him as “the black O’Connell of the United States”), took the pledge from a jangling Fr Mathew, and polished his international political savvy. It was here too that this extraordinarily brilliant man – who had never known his father, had seen his exhausted young mother buried in an in an unmarked grave, and had been brutalised by slave-breakers – observed in the starving ragged Irish fleeing the Famine, another suppressed population who, although a different colour, had also been afflicted by poverty and ruinous politics.
Now, as a general rule, as long as there are televised histories about, I’m never going to need a sleeping tablet. Give me a couple of copperplate etchings of bearded blokes and I’m gone, toast, cold toast (I usually wake up when my extremities are purpling and some academic in sandals is proselytising about the Act of Union). However, this vigorous documentary refused to fall into that category, instead focusing on racism and the Irish American experience. Mired in poverty on the streets of New York, we Irish, who had previously displayed a sophisticated political acceptance of Douglass and his cause, fought in the most horrific and insidious ways to elevate our status in the race riots that rocked the city during the American Civil War.
It was depressing stuff. Douglass was deserted by old allies such as Fr Mathew (who suddenly could find no opposition to slavery in the Bible) and Young Irelander (they turn up everywhere) John Mitchell, who bought himself a slave-stocked plantation and a porch swing. On the sidewalks of America we were told, the Irish and the freed slaves were adversaries who also who also lived in a kind of intimacy, an intimacy not always apparent as we gather on Fifth Avenue on glittering March days in our kiss-me-quick hats, but a fellowship stitched into the historic patchwork of an expectant America nonetheless.
Irish Examiner, April 2 2008, Frederick Douglass Editorial
The Tubridy Show, RTE 1, 30 April 2009, Frederick Douglass reviewed by Ann Marie Hourihan –
[Frederick Douglass and the White Negro]