David Dorr – art from travel

I’m more proud of this story than of most things I’ve done recently. I first came across David Dorr in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book on Jerusalem. Montefiore mentions Dorr in passing: “One unique American visitor, David Dorr, a young black slave from Louisiana who called himself a ‘quadroon’, agreed with Flaubert: on tour with his master, he arrived [in Jerusalem]…” etc.

I don’t particularly like Montefiore’s terminology here, but I’d never heard of Dorr and didn’t know enslaved people had visited Jerusalem at all. The idea was mind-expanding. Montefiore added this footnote:

“Dorr’s young master, plantation owner Cornelius Fellowes, decided to set off on a three-year tour of the world from Paris to Jerusalem. Fellowes offered a deal to his intelligent and literate young slave. If Dorr served him on the trip, he would be freed on his return. In his effervescent travelogue, Dorr recorded everything from the gorgeous ladies of Paris to the ‘scarce towers and charred walls’ of Jerusalem. On his return, his master refused to manumit him so Dorr escaped to the north and in 1858 published [his book]…”

And so on. Again, Montefiore’s language here grates (and, it turns out, he made a few factual errors too), but this is an amazing story. Dorr totally caught my imagination. What an extraordinary man he must have been! Resourceful, intrepid, canny, utterly determined.

I got hold of Dorr’s book. It blew me away. Dorr is a Black author deserving of global recognition. This is a life that needs to be known about. His writing is literary art that needs to be celebrated. (You’ll see what I mean in the attached piece – and it may not be what you expect.) I pitched the idea to an editor.

Fortunately, a few others have already got the ball rolling, not least Malini Johar Schueller, a professor at University of Florida, who wrote the brilliantly insightful introduction to the only modern edition of Dorr’s book, twenty years ago. I was lucky to interview her for my own piece about Dorr. That piece is newly out now in AramcoWorld magazine. Do let me know what you think. Amazing, right? I’m proud and very happy to have been able to use my platform and my privilege to nudge Dorr further into the spotlight.

And just for the record, so you saw it here first: the story of David Dorr needs to be made into a movie.

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