David Dorr: A story of liberation - excerpt

Laconic, funny, literate, sharply observant – and also arrogant and prejudiced – Dorr speaks as loudly to our century as to his. We should know his name.

 A PANORAMA of Jerusalem in the early 20th century. (photo credit: American Colony/National Photo Archive)
A PANORAMA of Jerusalem in the early 20th century.
(photo credit: American Colony/National Photo Archive)

Sometime in the spring of 1853, an American traveler named David Dorr rode a camel out of the deserts of southern Palestine.

“At one o’clock we were passing over rolling mounds adorned with olive trees,” Dorr wrote. “One was higher than the rest, and from its summit I saw Jerusalem only half a mile ahead. The [Dome of the Rock] glittered in the sun beam, above all the other buildings. I made my way straight to [the Church of the Holy Sepulcher] and fell upon [its] marble slabs.”

The French invasion of Egypt five decades earlier had sparked a wave of outside interest in Arab culture. Political reforms in the 1830s prompted many Europeans and Americans to explore and write about the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Palestine was a favored destination. Huge growth was to follow Dorr’s visit, partly inspired by Mark Twain’s witty, much-celebrated travel memoir The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, which helped fuel a Western fascination for visiting (as well as shaping and colonizing) the Israel that has never abated. By contrast, Dorr’s own memoir of his three-year journey around Europe and the Middle East, self-published more than a decade before Twain’s, is virtually forgotten outside academia. Its title gives a clue as to why this might be. He called it: A Colored Man Round the World.

African American social reformers including Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown and, most famously, Frederick Douglass had traveled to Europe before Dorr, lecturing and publishing. Others had been as far as Egypt.

But as far as we know, David Dorr was the first African American person ever to visit Jerusalem. He did not travel of his own free will. In this period before the American Civil War and before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Dorr – like some four million of his compatriots – was enslaved. He was brought to Jerusalem by his owner.

 WORSHIPERS AT the Western Wall in 1910.  (credit: American Colony/National Photo Archive) WORSHIPERS AT the Western Wall in 1910. (credit: American Colony/National Photo Archive)

Dorr was born in New Orleans in 1827 or 1828 (he had no birth certificate, but we can deduce the date from later evidence), enslaved to a white business-owner named Cornelius Fellowes. He described himself – and was described by others – as a quadroon, a now-archaic term meaning that he was one-quarter black, with one white parent and one parent who was of mixed white and black background. He refers to his mother also being enslaved in Louisiana, but doesn’t name her and we have no way of identifying either her or Dorr’s father. Significantly, Dorr’s skin colour seems to have been pale enough for him to pass as white.

Although Fellowes legally owned Dorr, the practical nature of their relationship, and how it was expressed, seems to have had more nuance than that suggests. Dorr says that Fellowes treated him as his own son and as free a man as walks the earth – although we should naturally be wary of taking such words at face value.

When Dorr was in his mid-twenties, Fellowes brought him on an extended world tour. They left New Orleans probably in early 1851, most likely taking ship from New York. Dorr records his and Fellowes’ arrival in the English port of Liverpool on 15 June that year and, after visiting London, the two men crossed to France and then meandered for more than two years through Europe and into Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, often with long stopovers. Paris was a favorite haunt. Their return ship, the US Mail Service steamer Franklin, departed Le Havre in northern France on September 2, 1853.

Back home in New Orleans later that year, everything changed. As Dorr writes: “When we returned, I called on this original man [Fellowes] to consummate a promise he made me in different parts of the world because I wanted to make a connection, that I considered myself more than equal in dignity and means. But as he refused me, I parted from him and his princely promises.”

In other words, Fellowes had vowed to free Dorr, but then went back on his word. Astonishingly for an enslaved person in the mortally dangerous surroundings of the Lower South, as it was called then, Dorr escaped, “reflecting on the moral liberties of the legal freedom of England, France and our New England States, with the determination to write.”

Perhaps helped by the Underground Railroad, a secret network of guides and safe houses for fugitive slaves, Dorr made it north to Ohio, where slavery was illegal. There he lived as a clerk, lecturing and, in 1858, paying to publish his book. During the Civil War (1861–65) he enlisted but was wounded in battle. He returned to New Orleans in failing health and died there, probably in 1872, aged in his mid-forties.

But for his book, we wouldn’t know Dorr at all. We have nothing from Fellowes to corroborate his account, and the purpose of their long journey is never made clear. Nonetheless, in a literary act of deep resonance, considering the erasure of Black perspectives and black lives in America before (and after) the Civil War, Dorr almost entirely erases Fellowes from his narrative. The journey is described as if it were Dorr’s alone. He is the one dining grandly, selecting itineraries and ordering transportation.

“I went down to have my bill made out,” he says of his Liverpool hotel. In Germany: “I declined all invitations and got a carriage.” In Italy: “Having arrived and hoteled myself, I ascertained where the races were.”

QUIETLY BUT deliberately, Dorr claims the agency denied to him. Moreover, where Dorr includes Fellowes, it is generally only to poke fun at him, as clumsy or socially awkward. Dorr’s writing shows acute sensitivity to power relations, yet he subverts those relations not through righteous anger – as many campaigners after him would – but subtly, by recreating himself on the page as a renowned and tasteful gentleman of leisure. He invents and inhabits a persona able to wield the cultural capital that he himself, back home in New Orleans, cannot. In this way, Dorr created a genre.

A Colored Man Round the World appropriates the forms and structures of Anglo-American travel writing so completely that what we have is a superb case of literary doublespeak: “the blackest of texts in whiteface,” literary scholar Malini Johar Schueller wrote in 1999, in her introduction to what is still the only modern edition of Dorr’s book.

In contradistinction to “blackface,” a theatrical tradition where white performers wear clownish make-up to caricature black people, Schueller’s idea of “whiteface” has Dorr deftly adopting a privileged air of urbane sophistication to mock and undermine his owner and other wealthy white American travelers. The veneer may be jokey, but the purpose is sharp.

“Dorr is writing for an American audience, mostly a white audience, and fashioning a self that is radically different from perceived ideas about African Americans,especially slaves,” says Schueller.

By assimilating – or even by just affecting assimilation – Dorr becomes able to quote Shakespeare and Byron. He can speak French. He can comment with insight on the social issues of the day.

FOLLOWING THE long camel ride across the desert into Palestine, Dorr harrumphs when authorities in Hebron refuse entry to the town’s mosque. Lodged in a Jerusalem convent – tantalizingly, he doesn’t identify which one – he offers a wry, Twain-like comment, years before Twain, on the economics of pilgrimage and the hierarchies of power between traveler and host: “They make no charges against a pilgrim, but no pilgrim can come here unless rich, and no rich man will go away without giving something to so sacred a place.”

He calls a local guide impudent. Jerusalemites are ignorant. Then there are factual discrepancies: Dorr says he rides from Jerusalem to Bethlehem – that is, southwards – but then discusses the tomb of Lazarus (which is in Bethany, east of Jerusalem) and Bethel (which is north of the city). Was he lost, mistaken or misled?

Finally, “having stayed seventeen days, I leave [Jerusalem], never wishing to return.” By then, in mid-1853, tension was rising between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. “The Turks all through Palestine [are] preparing for war,” Dorr writes, and hostilities did indeed break out only a few weeks later (that conflict, the Crimean War, ground on for more than two years).

Dorr says he “hurried on to Damascus,” but then unaccountably leaves the city undescribed, speeding through Lebanon to reach Acre and then Jaffa, where he departs for home.

Near the end of this rushed sequence comes an apparently minor episode outside Jerusalem that encapsulates Dorr’s extraordinary style. He writes, of a rural excursion: “The same evening I camped at Jericho. We took a bath in the Jordan [River], and tried some of its water with eau de vie *, and found it in quality like Mississippi water.”

Centuries of yearning in African American poetry and song evoke a remembrance of Zion in exile, often centered on the liberating experience of flowing water. Countless images link biblical baptism with spiritual freedom from enslavement. Here is Dorr, literally enslaved, presumably alongside an older man who claims legal ownership over him, surrendering his body, Christ-like, to the flowing water of a river that holds profound significance for his culture, religion and political identity – and he calls it merely “taking a bath.”

Then he drinks the very water of liberation, intoxicating himself and, with a devastating comparison, anchoring his own emancipation to the emancipation of his readers in America, who live lives of enslavement beside another flowing river. In one line Dorr winks at his white audience, who might grin (or tut) at the irreverence, and simultaneously broadcasts a message of solidarity and hope to African Americans.

He also, perhaps unwittingly, exposes the contradictions within his literary affectation. Dorr, Schueller observes, “claims an authority over the landscape that he, as a black person with origins in Egypt, [feels he] can claim,” yet he vilifies the Arab people who live in it.

If cool began with African Americans assuming a front of ironic detachment as personal rebellion against overwhelming oppression, concealing the emotional impact of terrible injustice behind a persona created to disarm, Dorr is a pioneer of cool. He asserted his authority to speak, despite enslavement. He shamed white Americans by demonstrating the abnormality of what they took as normal.

Laconic, funny, literate, sharply observant – and also arrogant and prejudiced – Dorr speaks as loudly to our century as to his. We should know his name.   ■

* A colorless fruit brandy or other alcoholic spirit. Perhaps Dorr was sipping arak, an anise-flavored spirit distilled in the countries of the Levant that is traditionally drunk slightly diluted. 

This story is extracted from the author’s new book, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem – A New Biography of the Old City (Profile Books, 2022) and is reprinted with permission. Teller is a guest of the Jerusalem International Book Forum this month.