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About The Book

The critically acclaimed author of Voodoo Dreams delivers an inspired work of historical fiction about the warring passions that drove the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and two women -- one black, one white -- who loved him.

Douglass' Women reimagines the lives of an American hero, Frederick Douglass, and two women -- his wife and his mistress -- who loved him and lived in his shadow. Anna Douglass, a free woman of color, was Douglass' wife of forty-four years, who bore him five children. Ottilie Assing, a German-Jewish intellectual, provided him the companionship of the mind that he needed. Hurt by Douglass' infidelity, Anna rejected his notion that only literacy freed the mind. For her, familial love rivaled intellectual pursuits. Ottilie was raised by parents who embraced the ideal of free love, but found herself entrapped in an unfulfilling love triangle with America's most famous self-taught slave for nearly three decades.

In her finest novel to date, Jewell Parker Rhodes vividly resurrects these two extraordinary women from history, portraying the life they led together under the same roof of the Douglass home. Here, fiery emotions of passion, jealousy, and resentment churn as the women discover an uneasy solidarity in shared love for an exceptional and powerful man. Douglass' Women fills the gaps and silences that history has left in an unforgettable epic full of heartache and triumph.


from Douglass' Women

I was born near Tuck's Creek in Carolina County, Maryland. My parents were freed a month before I was born. I be eight of twelve children. Never was a slave. Never had to escape dogs or a bad Massa.

But I seen my share of misery. It come rolling down, searing my back just the same. Come when I least expect it.

Freddy endured much. I appreciate that. I don't appreciate his feeling that hurt makes a person finer. He was "forged," he say, "forged like steel in the fire."

I was forged by love. That's what tore me up. That's what I didn't expect. How can something that causes the sky to be bluer than blue, sends warmth flooding your body, buckles your knees, and opens your soul to can what feels so good, hurt 'til you want to scratch your skin off? Snatch out the heart that feels so much?

If love be true, you feel more than you felt possible. More everything. More glory. More pain at a touch.

Frederick wanted me prim and proper. Like white women seem to be. But I wonder if they is? Truly? I'm a woman and I feel everything. Even when I don't show it, I feel.

Been feeling since the day I slipped out Mam's body.


Life was good with my parents. Always felt like a smile was growing inside me. A smile wider than a river, deeper than a well.

My name be Anna but I was called "Lil' Bit." Wasn't but four pounds when I was born. Mam had plenty kids but food was scarce. Mam didn't even know she was having me. Didn't know I was growing inside 'til almost the very end. She said her back ache. Low and deep. Not 'til her body say "push," did she think to lay down. No time to get the midwife. Just Mam and me. Pa was in the fields. The other children were finishing chores. Even the youngest was expected to weed the garden and feed chicks. So Mam laid down and I "slipped out," she say. The easiest of all her children. "Slipped out, swimming downstream with the birth water."

Come dinner, Mam told the family she had a surprise. Instead of cake, she brought out me.

"Everybody smile," Mam say, and I did, too. She said a bubble burst beween my lips, "glowing with a rainbow." Everybody laughed when it floated high. Then, Pa held me. Called me "Lil' Bit -- lil' black walnut." I was no bigger than that. And I was just that dark.

Pa said I had sense to look like Mam. All the other children were a blend of Pa's brown sugar and Mam's dark coffee. He say, "Rudy and George and all the others turned out a fine colored. Sweet enough to drink." But he say, "Dark coffee be best. Dark coffee be what I married. One day a good man be proud to marry you."

I used to think Freddy be proud because dark coffee covered me. My mistake.

He thirsted for everyone but me. Sweet cream. Buttermilk. Milk-laced tea.

I always thirsted for water. Clear. Cold. Cup after cup.

Mam taught me Water be a spirit. "All things alive," she say. "Earth. Wind. Fire. Water."

The Devil be afeared of Water. Afeared of Water's ghosts.

When they started carrying slaves from Africa, the Devil be delighted. "Good evil," he say. "Plenty good evil." Water be furious white men captured black men, women, and children. First Water thought to smash their boats. But Mister Wind wouldn't go along. Said Water would smash innocents, too -- "What about their bones? The slave childrens's souls?"

So Water swore any slave that died inside It would find a new kingdom. Not Heaven. Not Hell. But a new world.

Sometimes slaves died in storms. Most times slave catchers chained them, pushed them overboard. When slaves too sick, when pirates chased them, when the British come, Captains shouted, "Dump cargo." And all these women, babies, and men crashed down, drowning in the sea. Lungs exploded. Flesh eaten away. But their bones and souls still live at the sandy bottom. They say there be an army of twenty million. An army that can't be killed. Skeletons, hard and strong. Souls that blend invisible with water.

When Frederick travels by sea, I tell him, "Never fear." Bones be keeping him safe. He don't believe me. But 'tis true and he with all his trips to England, still live.

Frederick probably bury me in dirt. Thinking me a useless, black woman in a casket.

I'd rather be buried in water. Won't go to Heaven or Hell. Don't care. Water good enough. I was born with it. Grew up around it. Swum in it. When I was six, I started making a summer living from it.

June-bug nights the air be crisp, smelling of salt. My brothers played, trying to catch fireflies. Pa would be on the porch stirring lumps of sugar in lemonade. Mam be rocking inside, teaching us girls sewing. Beside her in the cradle, be whatever youngest baby there be. When the baby cried, Mam sang sweet songs. Sang about how all her babies made it across Jordan. Nobody a slave no more. They be proud. Mam and Pa. Proud they had a farm which fed us just above starving.

But I got restless staying indoors. Tired of having my sister, Lizbeth, pull my pigtails and Mam complain about my stitches. Tired of Mam singing about crossing the River Jordan when outside my door, there was a bay more beautiful in moonglow than in sunlight.

Free should mean doing things. Not just talking about free!

So, one June-bug night, I built me a trap out of sticks and fishnet. It wasn't too steady. Lopsided on one end. Slats, too wide.

Everybody asked, "What you doin', Lil' Bit?"

"I'm going to catch crabs."

Everybody giggled: "When you become fisherman?" "Where's your boat?"

But Mam said I should be "encouraged." That's her very word: encouraged. She learned it from Miz Pullman when she cleaned her house.

I carried my trap to where I liked to play. A small cove with moss, willow trees, and silver fishes. Mosquitoes sucked my blood, but I didn't mind. I pushed my trap into blue-green water and prayed to them bones at the bottom of the sea. I prayed hard for them to bring crabs. Big Blue ones to sell.

First, I didn't hear no sound. Then, I heard what I thought be music. Sweeter than Mam's singing. No words, only sounds. Like children playing, clapping songs, jumping rope or eating sweet potato pie. My soul lit up. I was certain them bones be my friend. They be enjoying this free colored girl. Not jealous, but happy I was alive.

I raced home and asked Mam to make fritters.

Mam say, "Anna, now why? Why I wanna heat my stove tonight?"

I told her, "Them bones gonna bring Big Blues. I'm gonna sell fritters with my crabs. Them bones they promised. Promised me big, blue crabs."

Mam looked at me funny. Her head sideways, her lips puckered. Her eyes squinting at me hard-like. "Did they sing?"

I nodded.

Then, Mam jumped up, scurried to the porch, and shouted for the boys to chop more wood. She sent my sisters to find every bowl we owned. Lu, she told to get the flour. Lizbeth had to collect well water.

Pa complained, "We need sleep. Time for bed. Not listening to Lil' Bit."

Mam say, "Hush. We cook all night. Tomorrow we sell crabs."

Pa puffed his chest, going to complain more when Mam say, "The bones sang. She heard them."

Pa looked at me with respect. He say, "Lil' Bit, I know you special. But just 'cause the bones sing, don't mean they promised. Let's go check that trap."

I was scared. All my family looking at me. Lionel stuck out his tongue; I stuck mine back.

We all followed Pa down the steps, across grass, weaving between lacy willows and blinking fireflies to my special cove. All of us stopped and held our breath as Pa pulled my pitiful trap from the water. We couldn't see. Pa's back covered the trap. A minute. He say nothing. Another minute.

Then, he whistled low and deep. He turned, smiling like Sunday and shouted, "Boys, chop wood for a bonfire. We're frying fritters all night."

So we did. All night, fritters gurgled in the pot. We drained and cooled them on a sheet stripped to rags. We all were hot and weary, but whenever we thought about quitting, Pa checked the trap. It was always full of Big Blues; Pa set them aside and laid my trap again and again.

Come morning, our rooster, Sid, crowed and Mam had six baskets stuffed with fritters. Pa had the buckets stuffed with crabs. In twos, like Noah's Ark (Mam had the baby; Pa took the next youngest), we walked the lane to town.

I be with George and we headed down Charleston Avenue. George carried the ice-cold bucket; me, the basket. Both of us hollering, "Fresh crabs. Fresh fritters. Crabs live. Fritters cooked. Two pennies."

Noontime, nothing left. Everything's gone. We be rich. Mam bought everybody new shoes.

Pa kissed me six times: on my nose, forehead, each eye, then, my lips and chin. Mam bought us licorice sticks. We were happy all summer long.

When September came, Mam say with so much money she could spare some children to school. She say, "Lil' Bit, you go. You learn reading and writing."

I said, "Naw."

If I'd of knowed how much Frederick was going to hold it against me, I would've said different.

Freddy didn't mind my not reading. But it bothered Frederick Bailey Douglass, the ex-slave man. He say reading "freed him." "Reading is the only way to light the corners of the mind."

I be bull-headed. I was good enough when we married, why wasn't I good enough after? And, for the longest time, it was Freddy not Frederick who met me in bed. So, I felt no need to read.

Then, when I wanted to learn reading and writing, there was no time. Freddy gone most times. Me, alone in a cold house. Left to raise four children. Bury one. Left to rebuild when the house burnt down. When those white men burnt it.

After Annie's burial, Freddy didn't touch me no more. But Frederick used me. Like a slop jar to wet.

This be true: I knew my brother and sister would enjoy school more. I was content by Mam's side. Being her shadow. I dreamed one day I'd have a baby girl who'd want to shadow me. Hadn't counted on my daughter being ripped away to boarding school. At seven, no less. Naw, I surely didn't expect that. Tore me up inside.

My happiest days were spent with Mam. She taught me to crimp pie crust, braise greens, stuff and lace a hen. She taught me how to clean sheets by adding a teaspoon of lye, how lemon juice made a window shine, how turkey feathers dusted finer than cotton. I never liked sewing much but she taught me when a seam's been tugged too tight, when a hem has less than ninety stitches.

I loved my days in the house. It was me and Mam's small kingdom.

Seventeen, I started service for the Baldwins. I treated their home like my own. I took care to make it a place for joy to happen in. But I still dreamed of my own home. My own clean, good-smelling world for my children.

Except I was having trouble finding the man to make my dream real.

When white men treated me with disrespect, I prayed to the Lord. He kept me safe from bad men. From colored men, too, who wanted my sugar without marriage.

I be wanting love. Wanting to open like a flower for the right man.

Problem was there weren't enough good men. There were some kind men. Men who would sell fish, farm for white folks, some even shoe horses. But I wanted a man who could be more than that, more than me and inspire my children. I kept pure 'til it seemed like I was too old to have any choice. My blush of youth blushed itself away.

I almost made peace with lonely days. But lonely nights were harder. My passion didn't bank down like it should. Prayers helped only some. I was needing, needy for love. Needing my own house. My own home.

I figured I'd be like water. Calm, floating, ever still. But them bones taught me about a world beneath water. Bones cried out, singing about desires unfilled. Lives unlived. Lovers untouched. Children unborn.

Just when I thought all hopeless, I got what I wished for. A man to inspire my children. Yet at a price paid. Price dearly paid.

I wonder whether my children -- Rosetta, Charles Redmond, Lewis, and Freddy Jr. -- be better for it? Whether my dead daughter cared her Daddy was Frederick Bailey Douglass?

Mam never lost a child like I did.

How explain that? Did them bones want Annie? Was that part of the price paid?

Past my prime, I get the man of my dreams. Miracle, don't you think?

Freddy thinks reading and the sight of white-masted ships free him. But I freed him. Me and my bones. We made a harbor. A place to ease his body down.

When I first saw Freddy's face, I saw the sun rise. My promised land. The bones made flesh.

And like flesh, everything dies. Everything goes bye and bye.

Copyright © 2002 by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Reading Group Guide

Douglass' Women
Reading Group Discussion Questions
Discussion Questions
1. When Anna first sees Frederick in the shipyard, she finds herself drawn to him even though they do not speak during this initial encounter. What is it about Frederick that attracts Anna to him?
2. How would you describe Anna's relationship with Frederick from their days in Baltimore through their decades-long marriage? Why do you think Anna remained with Frederick in spite of his flagrant unfaithfulness? How would you describe Frederick's relationship with Ottilie? Why do you think Ottilie chose to remain with Frederick especially since she, unlike Anna, had the financial means to care for herself?
3. In the author's note at the end of the book, Jewell Parker Rhodes describes Anna and Ottilie as "two brave women." Why do you think she chose to describe them as brave? Do you agree with this assessment? Did you empathize with one woman more than the other?
4. The time period in which the novel takes place was marked by political unrest and social change -- the fight against slavery, the coming of the Civil War, and the burgeoning women's movement. To what extent do these political and social circumstances contribute to the individual fates and fortunes of the three main characters -- Frederick, Anna, and Ottilie?
5. From the time she first meets Frederick, Anna worries that she "might not be what he wanted" (pg. 22). She believes that he finds her unattractive, uneducated, too old when they marry, and her skin not light enough. Are her fears grounded in reality? How does this belief in part define her relationship with Frederick?
6. The story is constructed in alternating chapters told from Anna and Ottilie's perspectives. How does this narrative structure enhance the story? Each woman is looking back on the past and telling her story. Does the vantage point of age influence the telling of each one's tale?
7. When she first journeys to America, Ottilie encounters a slave, Oluwand, who commits suicide by jumping over the ship's railing. Throughout her life Ottilie is haunted by visions of Oluwand, in one instance saying that "she'd appear in my bedroom, on the edge of my bed. Her black eyes blinking like an owl's" (pg 219). What does Oluwand represent to her, and why can't she forget her?
8. Why do you think Frederick married Helen Pitts and not Ottilie after Anna's death? Why do you think, in spite of his having forsaken her, that Ottilie left her estate to Frederick?
9. One of Ottilie's diary excerpts refers to Anna by saying, "I shouldn't have hated her. She loved him, just like me." Anna, referring to Ottilie, says the following: "Miss Assing wasn't a Delilah. I see that now." In the end, do you think Anna and Ottilie come to understand one another to some degree?
10. History has remembered Frederick Douglass as a great man and abolitionist. Did reading this novel alter your opinion of Frederick Douglass?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jewell Parker Rhodes, an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, including Voodoo Dreams, Season (formerly titled Voodoo Season) Yellow Moon (formerly titled Yellow Moon), Magic City, Douglass' Women, Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, and The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction, is the Virginia G. Piper Chair in Creative Writing and artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 22, 2010)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451612530

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Raves and Reviews

The Washington Post [A] courageous and beautiful book.

Charles Johnson [A] passionate, moving novel that explores the place where American history intersects with the human heart.

Whoopi Goldberg Once again Jewell Parker Rhodes takes us someplace we never knew existed. With insight and depth we get into the lives of these three historical people, Douglass, Douglass, and Assing, only to realize that they are as contemporary as we are. Well done!

Diana Gabaldon author of The Fiery Cross A remarkable act of fictional biography!

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