When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ”Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,’ he wrote in a letter of August 1787, ‘even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.’
But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song ‘The Slave’s Lament’: ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’
In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘Ye Banks and Braes.’ And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, ‘a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.’1
The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and – barely out of his teens – engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.
But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.
In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the ‘bigoted and besotted clergy’ and the ‘shallow-brained aristocracy’, and ‘broke loose’, as he put it, ‘from the moorings society had thrown around him.’ But he acknowledged his faults too. ‘Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths’, he observed – perhaps alluding to some of his own.
Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other – in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.
Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson’s introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:
The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.
The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the ‘Jamaican Burns’ for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the ‘Scottish Bennett’). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.
Douglass’ interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname – adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts – he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States – from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites – his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.
Another Scot who inspired Douglass was Lord Byron, particularly the lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2
But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass’ robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.
He began by admitting that ‘I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character – a high appreciation of Scotch genius – constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.’ He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country – where ‘every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom’ – and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.
‘And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,’ he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, ‘I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that.”‘4
- Frederick Douglass, ‘A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns’, extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
- Frederick Douglass, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave  in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom  (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America  (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk  in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
- Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; ‘The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; ‘Our Recent Western Tour’, Douglass’ Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
- Frederick Douglass, ‘On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.
(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).