"Yours very truly": Ellen Craft - the fugitive as text and artifact.
From 1830-1860, in the decades that foregrounded the Dred Scott Decision, Fugitive Slave Law, Secession, and Civil War, the published lives of African American women resulted from both restless imaginings and raw guts. Free African American women who wrote of their sisters and themselves in letters to the antislavery press constantly negotiated matrices of silence and speech, of servitude and freedom, of chaos and humanity, of ignorance and education, of solitude and community. One paradigm for the issues enunciated by these letters of antebellum African American women and extended in their separately published autobiographies is provided by material written by and about the American fugitive Ellen Craft.
As proof of the difficulties that African American women endured in setting their own voices down in print, most of what we now possess of Ellen's story is contained, and occasionally subsumed. It is in a bricolage of letters, reports, and reminiscences written and delivered by others that Ellen's story appears. The best known source of this testimony is Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), her husband William's recounting of their tandem flight from bondage in Macon, Georgia, and subsequent sensational adventures as fugitives. In December 1848 the couple undertook an audacious escape from their captivity. As William's narrative recalls, the light-skinned, virtually white Ellen, child of her own white master and "her mother his slave" (2), disguised herself as a wealthy yet rheumatic Southern gentleman on pilgrimage to Philadelphia for ameliorative treatments. Since husband William possessed black skin and discernably African features, he undertook the charade of posing as his "master's" attentive, obedient servant [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Cross-dressing as a means of eluding detection - born of the Crafts' keen, creative resolve to be free - was not unique to this couple. William Still, who escorted hundreds to safety along the corridors of the Underground Railroad, remembered, "Men disguised in female attire and women dressed in the garb of men have under very trying circumstances triumphed in thus making their way to freedom" (1). One example of such ingenuity was Clarissa Davis of Virginia, who sidled aboard a New England-bound boat clothed as a man; Mary Millburn, too, elected to escape captivity by stealing aboard a ship attired as a man; and Maria Weems from the District of Columbia, as a girl of fifteen, devised to evade her pursuers by masquerading in male disguise (Still 60-61, 177-89, 558-59). We are also told that Harriet Tubman, most illustrious among the Southern fugitives, once disguised a Black man as a bonneted woman in order to obstruct his arrest and re-enslavement by Northern deputies; and Tubman herself, who wore pants during her raids with Union soldiers, was valorized for posterity as Moses by her fellow African Americans (Sterling, Sisters 222-23, 260-61). Thus, while Ellen and William's decision to escape as a pair distinguishes their flight from other examples of role reversal, Ellen's masculine disguise in and of itself was no innovation.
In truth, writes William in his narrative, Ellen herself "had no ambition whatever" to disavow her gender,
and would not have done so had it been possible to have obtained our liberty by more simple means; but we knew it was not customary in the South for ladies to travel with male servants; and therefore, notwithstanding my wife's fair complexion, it would have been a very difficult task for her to have come off as a free white lady, with me as her slave; in fact, her not being able to write would have made this quite impossible. (35)
Difficulties arose from Ellen's lack of reading and writing skills (William, too, was illiterate when they escaped): Both "had, by stratagem, learned the alphabet while in slavery, but not the writing characters" (85). Difficulties also arose from the strictures of slave-holders' custom and chivalrous etiquette, which precluded Ellen from the "more simple" task of feigning to be her husband's plantation mistress. Thus, this fugitive couple's plan came to stand distinctly among other stories of gender exchange and escape. It is at least as important to note, however, that Ellen's metamorphosis accomplished more than merely a shorter haircut and a switch from skirts to trousers. With its transformation of an enslaved, deprivileged, outcast, racially tainted, genetically inferior quadroon woman into the free, privileged, primary, racially pure, genetically superior white man [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] - a transformation occurring without any chemistry or catalysts other than intellect, Providence, and will - the Crafts' incredible scheme contested those sorry prejudices and spurious persuasions for enslavement based on assumptions of gender, class, and race.
By rail car and by steamer the Crafts traveled north. Ellen sojourned in first-class accommodations and finely appointed rooming houses; William, seldom far from "master's" side, occupied luggage compartments and tawdry servants' quarters; and both catapulted themselves to freedom in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. First, the Crafts resided in Boston, and one of their swift accomplishments was to obtain a legal certificate of matrimony and to remarry in a religious ceremony witnessed by respected leaders of both Black and white communities (Child, Freedmen's Book 193). Soon, however, they discovered that "running a thousand miles for freedom" did not mean running from Georgian bondage to genuine emancipation. Other fugitives could attest that only in Canada, England, or one of the foreign havens - Mexico, Haiti - could their escape engender lasting liberty for the formerly enslaved.
During their transitory introduction to "free" life in Massachusetts, the Crafts wasted little time procuring the physical protection, financial assistance, and emotional inspiration of militant abolitionist communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Arna Bontemps, one of the first literary critics to publish an anthology of the popular "slave narratives," and to propose these narratives as an important category of American autobiography, observes that "the story of William and Ellen Craft had been told, repeated in fragments, and retold among proslavery people as well as by Abolitionists for at least a decade before the Crafts were in a position to publish their narrative" (269). For "proslavery people," the Craft story proved fertile ground for reaping evidence of Black people's capriciousness, unctuosity, and deviance. For "Abolitionists," every thrilling and titillating ingredient of the classic slave narrative - hair-raising escape and death-defying combat, hot pursuit by cruel slaveholders, sentimental scenes of separation and reunion, passions of both flesh and spirit, dramatic twists of fortune, sure signs of Providential favor, and more - all these steamed through the pages of this couple's harrowing journey (Olney 152-53). Among those who told the Crafts' story before and after publication of their narrative were those who had gained national stature as literary luminaries in their own right: William Lloyd Garrison, long-tenured editor of the Liberator (1831-1865); William Wells Brown, a fugitive lecturer extraordinaire and, with his Clotel (1853), the first published African American novelist; Lydia Maria Child, editor of numerous antislavery anthologies, souvenir albums, and narratives for adults and children; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, champion of the first Black Union regiments and confidante of Emily Dickinson; and that distinguished Underground Rail Road (1872) historian himself, the Black Philadelphian William Still.
However, the Crafts did not witness the evolution of their story passively. William's narrative and earlier correspondence in the periodical press indicate the couple's eagerness to learn to read and write. In a letter dated November 29, 1851, and published in the Liberator, William Craft explained to abolitionist friends that their reason for not sending letters had been "merely because we, as you well know, have been deprived of the act of writing, and consequently felt our inability of addressing a letter to you" (Woodson 262). William learned to read and write while simultaneously making money in America and England as a carpenter, furniture salesman, and antislavery lecturer; Ellen became adept enough to assist William later in opening a school and farm in Woodville, Georgia, for the newly liberated "contraband of war"; early in their life abroad, both had secured the patronage of British aristocracy, and both had been enrolled in Ockham School near London to improve their literacy and take vocational training.
Prohibited by social custom that regarded publishing as a man's work, and restricted, certainly, by the demands of raising five children, providing additions to the family income, and promoting herself as a genteel feminine model for her race, Ellen was not positioned to publish her own separate, book-length version of the escape. Yet her story, "repeated in fragments" (Bontemps 269), does emerge in letters written by Ellen and her supporters to newspapers in the United States and Great Britain. Read in complement with William's narrative of Running a Thousand Miles, Ellen's correspondence defies classifications by gender and race that sought to relegate African American men and women to a second-class, underclass status.
I may state here that every man slave is called boy till he is very old, then the more respectable slaveholders call him uncle. The women are all girls till they are aged, then they are called aunts. (William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom 77)
One unusual letter of Ellen's, written after she and William had fled to England, achieved particular notoriety among the pages of transatlantic antislavery newspapers. Copies of it were circulated in the States in the Pennsylvania Freeman and National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York (both 23 Dec. 1852), and in London's Anti-Slavery Advocate (Dec. 1852).(1) In this letter Ellen responds to a "strange report" and "absurd calumny," as the editors of the Advocate exclaimed, that she had grown weary of struggling with William to eke out a free, self-sustaining home in a strange and distant land. Through the intercession and munificence of a sympathetic Southern gentleman, Ellen had allegedly "restore[d]" herself to the condition of one enslaved and to the "protection" of her Judas-faced enslavers. In other words, as she herself paraphrases from one of these inauthentic sources, "I had placed myself in the hands of an American gentleman in London, on condition that he would take me back to the family who held me as a slave in Georgia." Or so followed the rumor, for Ellen's swift denial ensues. Feeling "very much obliged" to the antislavery journals for alerting her to the lie, she begins her retort:
So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.
Yours very truly, ELLEN CRAFT
P.S. Mr. Craft joins in kind regards to yourself and family.
Ellen's "few lines" find her traversing the same ground as had many a seasoned fugitive before her. Accounting for the strength of one's resolve to be free in the face of a phony "report" in contradiction of that resolve seemed an inevitable initiation for the unsuspecting fugitive into the sordid editorial wars and epistolary skirmishes instigated by white American supporters of enslavement. Douglass himself had been rumored to have frequented a brothel during a tour of England (Blackett, Building 85).
In the false reports circulated in the press, Ellen is described as a passive, possessed, and cornmodified item of negotiation, property, and exchange. Through such phrases as "I had placed myself," "in the [gentleman's] hands," "he would take me," and "who held me as a slave," Ellen is identified by the slaveholding South as accruing no more or less value than the fluctuating currency of its mercantile economy. And that she purportedly requested the "condition" of recovery to her old Georgia owners calls less attention to her rescuer's needs than to her purported lack of initiative. Called to mind are the litany of "conditions" and provisions that constituted the legal codes and commercial vocabularies of enslavement - "the infant follows the condition of its mother," "FOR SALE - one comely gal in fine condition." William himself had recollected that his marriage to Ellen had been "postponed for some time simply because one of the unjust and worse than Pagan laws under which we lived compelled all children of slave mothers to follow their condition" (Running 16). These connections of "condition" to breeding, biology, and health manufactured the human identities of African men and women into those of articles of merchandise manipulated for capital and packaged for trade. ". . . within the economic system of slavery," writes Houston A. Baker, Jr., "the black woman's value is a function of her womb" (Blues 51). Ellen herself would be redeposited in enslavement "on condition that" she toss her intellect and her will behind aimlessly.
Instead of Southern slavery's narrative of economic profit and loss, Ellen in her letter chooses a lexicon consonant with the definitions of domesticity and femininity idealized among many Black and white Northern readers.(2) She signs her letter with her surname "ELLEN CRAFT" - as if to associate her liberated identity with the expected and successfully executed obligations of women to home and family and community. She inscribes the signature of a married woman as if to demolish outstanding suspicions that, as a female of African descent fraught by the stereotypes of Blackness, she might prove to be a fraudulent daughter, a negligent mother, and an adulterous wife. Ellen Craft indicates that no innate inclination among enslaved women prevents them from nurturing children and securing homes and husbands. Rather, it is the institution of enslavement that excludes these activities when defining Black womanhood. Enslavement establishes demands for female servitude that impress upon Black women a double burden of domestic responsibility and forced labor (with rape or "breeding" frequent categories of this labor). Enslavement, Ellen Craft's letter indicates, excoriates African women for not possessing the very qualities of womanhood and domesticity that it then discourages them from obtaining. That a woman such as she could emblematize these qualities of femininity not only challenged the stereotypes about all female slaves, but it also demanded a complete reconsideration of the term feminine to account for the many respects in which nineteenth-century African American women operated.(3)
When Ellen Craft's letter appeared at the end of 1852, suffragettes, Bloomerites, and promiscuous "female lecturers" had begun criticizing domestic ideologies that diminished women in relationship to men and privileged constructions of women as subordinates to male authority. Given the exigencies and contradictions of her own existence, it seems unlikely that Ellen would have connected herself to domesticity without regard to the consequences of her own oppression. Instead, the discourse of domesticity that she appropriates in her correspondence anticipates a different kind of domestic discourse. In the post-bellum sentimental narratives of African American women, Claudia Tate finds a revised discourse of domesticity, a "liberational discourse," that recasts marriage and motherhood not as signs of subservience but as "pinnacles of a people's new beginning" (126).
The "new beginning" that Ellen Craft's letter celebrates is manifold and dramatic. As much as she, as an individual, has "gotten much better in every respect," her letter foretells the emancipation of her entire race. Ellen associates her own matrimony and motherhood with the improvements that only liberty can initiate. The Crafts, Running a Thousand Miles reminds us, had precipitated their escape for two reasons. First, they had yearned for the sanctity of a legally documented marriage, one which slaves, considered brutes or chattel, had no right to claim. Second, they had wasted too many dreary hours imagining their children sold like pups in a litter. More was wrong with slavery than this, and many slaves suffered worse than they did, but as William Craft admits in the very first paragraph of the narrative: ". . . above all, the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years" (1-2).
Ellen, too, connects emancipation to bearing and raising her children when her letter or text mentions both the American "family who held me as a slave in Georgia" and, in her postscript, the American family of the newspaper editor who publishes her letter. She imbricates these with her own Black family and her own identification as a mother and a wife, thus emphasizing the irony of her own escape (and of the departures of so many women like her) having been made in order to cultivate a home. Family and liberty had been so consciously intertwined in the opinions of herself and William that, upon their remarriage in Massachusetts, their minister had "presented William with a revolver and a dirk-knife, counseling him to use them manfully . . . if ever an attempt should be made by his owners or anyone else to re-enslave them" (Still 371).(4)
As much as this discourse connects Ellen to respectable womanhood, it in part contains her and eradicates other important aspects of her identity. The discourse sometimes seems at odds with the intrepid, insouciant Ellen who surfaces in her own text and whom readers had come to know through her oft-recounted story. The imbroglio of male and female perspectives points to the pressures facing free African American women from two fronts - from their antislavery supporters and from their own Black communities - to juggle public, activist lives with a popular image of womanhood that often contradicted these lives. The life of a "true woman" demanded an affluence, solitude, and leisure that free Black women born outside the manor found difficult to acquire. "Because most black men [in the nominally free North] were based from skilled labor," Shirley J. Yee states, "and thus forced to work in low-paying menial occupations, they could not live up to their prescribed role as sole provider" (51). Exiled to Great Britain, most male American fugitives confronted this same emasculating reality.
William's stature in England as celebrity and curiosity prohibited him on the one hand from working-class aspirations; on the other, his African identity and enslaved history precluded him from graduating to the landed, courtly lives of many of his aristocratic white friends (Sterling, "Ellen" 44). Thus, while William passed the expatriate decades (1850-1870) as an entrepreneur, a lecturer, an author, and even a trader in Dahomey (part of what is now Nigeria), Ellen provided vital, quiet additions to their household income, and she assisted her husband in publicly focusing British sympathies upon the collective agonies of American slaves. Ellen juggled her public identity of seamstress, tutor, and lecturer with her private roles of mother and wife. Her letter hints at this balancing act, which is more fully reconsidered in the separately published, book-length autobiographies of such African American women writers as Harriet Jacobs.
Freeman. . . . to make your mind perfectly easy, I will tell you a secret. In that ice-house, yonder, there are steps that lead to the underground railroad. You have heard of the underground railroad, perhaps?
Ellen, [smiling.] O, yes. sir. We come by that road.
Freeman. I shall keep spies on the watch. If any strangers approach, I will begin to sing, "Get out of the way old Dan Tucker!" Then the women will run for ice, and you and your husband will run with them. There's one slave under the ice-house, already. He's so black, that it won't do for him to show his face here. . . . As for you, no one unacquainted with your history would believe that you were not a white woman.
Ellen. I wish it were possible to cross over to Canada soon, sir. (Lydia Maria Child, Act VI of The Stars and Stripes. A Melo-Drama 164-65)
In addition to her printed words, Ellen's face became central in constructing her identity as a free and autonomous being. Her face reminds us of both the humanizing and sexualizing functions of visual "text" or discourse in the narratives of the formerly enslaved. After their fantastic flight from bondage, portraits of Ellen in disguise sold so well that William hoped the proceeds might assist him in securing his still-enslaved sister's freedom (Running 12). To abolitionists, these engravings or pictorial texts authenticated Ellen's trauma and inaugurated written testimony of her escape in the same manner that male and female fugitives legitimized their pain and retorted detractors through what Houston A. Baker, Jr., calls the "Negro exhibit" - public displays of scars and signs of torture that escaped slaves, in silence, presented during their lectures to white Northern audiences. Baker writes,
The fugitive slave turned his back to the audience and displayed his wounds and scars from floggings at the stake of slavery. His or her body, in all of its marked and visible clarity of wounding, made affective the metaphors of moral suasion pro-pounded by white abolitionists. . . . [Thus, t]he silent, fugitive slave's body became an erotic sign of servitude in the social, liberational discourse of white abolitionists and their predominantly white audiences. (Workings 13)(5)
Clothed, the fugitive was likewise "exhibited" in frontispiece engravings of nineteenth-century narratives written by or dictated from former slaves. Starched, corseted, buttoned-down, and enshawled, her hair neatly platted and mercifully absolved of the pick-aninny's bush or housemaid's headrag, controlled by her clothes and obeisant to the society which ordered those controls, the fugitive woman would peer from within the borders of the page as a prima facie endorsement of her narrative's truth, her potential for acculturation, and the prices that she and her sisters would pay for admission into that American culture [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Her narrowed pelvis and harnessed hips would hint at a normal anatomy modestly sequestered in a kind of purdah underneath her slips and petti-coats - nothing similar to the wide pelvis, exaggerated buttocks, and hyperinflated genitalia with which nineteenth-century medical texts bestialized her (Gilman 231-39). When a face fair-of-skin-complexion peered from the page, a face blackened only by the national disgrace its text would hesitate to tell, then the frontispiece engraving began with wicked stealth the process of confronting white America with the terrible, taboo topic of race-mixing. Such a face functioned is an explicit substitute for the words that had not been printed and the speeches not yet spoken on the rapes of enslaved Black women by white men. These were rapes that press and pulpit, even up North, conspired to deny or to denounce as the fault of the "over-sexed" victim herself.
Clothed instead of naked, her bandaged maladies a mere and known pretense, Ellen's frontispiece portrait articulates the death of herself as a captive commodity and her resurrection as a wily, liberated subject. Her top hat, jacket, heraldic tassel, tartan, and tidily tacked tie - all status symbols of white male authority and privilege - and her closed-mouthed, reflective smile jointly tell a story of dignity, patience, and reason. These upset allegations connecting Black womanhood with unbridled joviality, unrestrained impulse, and utter misdirection and confusion.
Readers of the antislavery and reform newspapers would perhaps be more quick than a contemporary American audience to associate the engraving of Ellen, attired as a Southern gentleman, with the ideologies of race and womanhood negotiated throughout Ellen's letter. William Still's reaction to observing Ellen in masculine attire sets forth the nature of this conflict:
Ellen in her fine suit of black, with her cloak and high-heeled boots, looking, in every respect, like a young gentleman; in an hour after having dropped her male attire, and assumed the habilments of her sex, the feminine only was visible in every line and feature of her structure. (370)
Just as did her letter, so, too, do Ellen's clothes dictate the battles that she faces over received definitions of male and female sexuality.
On one level, it is a definition of female sexuality and the psychological "habilments of her sex" that the masculinized Ellen "breeches" both visually and ideologically. As Marjorie Garber writes of Ellen Craft's predicament, "Cross-dressing was a necessity, not a pleasure, and though it called for improvisation, it was not in itself 'liberating' for the woman in disguise" (284). That African women and white women share the same female gender and the same proclivities of that gender was a matter of debate and one that Ellen's costume incites. Beneath the shorn hair, tasseled cloak, and waistcoat of Ellen's masquerade, nineteenth-century spectators encounter not the "exhibit" of just any woman, but that of a woman and an African who has been enslaved, who has thus theoretically abrogated the category of "woman" or "female" by dint of her captive, African identity. Oft-cited justifications of enslavement included the views that African women were capable of the most strenuous physical labor, indifferent to the sale of their spouses and children, unladylike in thought and language, mammy-ishly desexualized, and/or lascivious and prurient enough to labor with their limbs immodestly exposed (White 101-04). Therefore, some white spectators might excuse Craft's "error" by presupposing that these same propensities must have immured her to the mortification and obscenity of her male costume. Such viewing audiences might consider Ellen's mannish disguise as mere proof of the assumption that all African women occupy an intrinsically attenuated, oppositional relationship with the classification "woman."
Yet the stereotypes evoked by Ellen's costume are refuted by her own unhesitant and constant appearance in female attire once she and William arrive in the Northern states. And these stereotypes are further challenged by those circumstances surrounding her escape: by her desire for a sanctified marriage, by her fear that any white man might rape a daughter of hers with impunity, by her conviction that no man possessed the right to sell a family, by her memory of how she herself had been sent away from her own mother, a "wedding present" (Running 2) only eleven years old, because she resembled too closely the white family that owned her. These responses define Ellen as a woman who espouses the values and exhibits the manners of her Northern white sisters. These affirm a feminine identity.
If they could understand that they were encountering a woman in masculine disguise, viewers of this picture in the antislavery press might then reflect upon the particular horrors that enslavement held for Black women. White women who encountered her picture might gaze at Craft in her costume as if through a speculum that reflected insights into their own pedestaled positions. Distant and protected from the feminized perils of Southern enslavement - from rape, from the forced sale of their children, from the prohibition of marriage that made all intercourse illicit and immoral (William and Ellen's own marriage could be legally consummated only after they reached freedom) - white women contemplating Craft's male disguise might realize the gender-specific torments that made the lives of enslaved women living hells. For these white and womanly viewers, to reflect upon Craft's outfit of manhood, an outfit of authority and power, would mean to recognize how enslavement divested African women of the protection of fathers, husbands, and sons, and demanded them freakishly to substitute themselves in the labors and decisions that the customs of the day inclined "naturally" to men. The white female viewership that encountered Craft's disguise might understand, in a manner no words could convey, that no prospect of escape from this living hell existed that was too forbidden or too desperate. Under these circumstances, Ellen's was an escape that any woman would attempt. And such an escape meant high time for an end to enslavement.
Reflecting upon Ellen Craft's cross-dressed "debasement" forced white and womanly viewers to realize how their own silence and complicity about enslavement deprivileged and destroyed their enslaved sisters. Ellen credited her white mistress "for not exposing her to many of the worst features of slavery" (Running 8). Yet her escape suggests that other "features" of her bondage - such as the cruel and early separation from her mother - had been just as insufferable. William confirmed that resentful and remorseless white "ladies, when angry with their maids" (8), were as likely as men to subject enslaved African women to the commonplace humiliations of the flogging post. He
wondered at the complicity of "virtuous [Southern and Northern white] ladies looking with patience upon, and remaining indifferent to, the existence of a system that exposes nearly two millions of their own sex in the manner I have mentioned." William wondered at those "ladies" who sent their "defenseless" sisters not only to be flogged, but also "to submit to the greatest indignity" (8). With her appearance as an African woman "dressed" as a white woman dressed as a white Southern man, Ellen elides the distinctions between the genders and scrambles the identities of haughty mistress and humble slave. One effect that she instigates as a pictorial artifact is to propose that the true perversions of femininity, the real devils in disguise, are none other than the "kindly" mistresses and gliding, giddy debutantes and belles who are supposed to be the toast of Southern chivalry.
The effect of Ellen's portrait, however, is an androgynous one: It is male sexuality as much as female sexuality that her engraving calls into question. To an audience inhibited by social and cultural mores from flank public discussion of this topic, her picture speaks volumes. Already discombobulated by the calamity of top hat, tie, and other masculine accoutrements in effect among Ellen's attire, nineteenth-century spectators might have been even more mortified by and attracted to the tassel and tartan ornaments prominent upon her clothing. These accessories ennoble Ellen's costume and present her as a gentleman of riches and refinement. In fact, pinned upon her chest and shoulders, they function like the epaulets of a soldier, the badges of a champion athlete, or the coat-of-arms of a king: The tassel and tartan function as insignia of membership and initiation. The pendulous tassel inscribes the sign of the phallus, of the male. The tartan fabric with its plaid design announces the clans of ireland and Scotland, the very nations that genealogy proudly connects so many slave-holders to. Ellen has succeeded in invading the club of none other than white male America. Her victory in impersonating all the superior qualities deemed so antithetical to her race and sex debunks the absolute, essentialist "laws" of nature that place African women at the bottom of the social order and institutionalize their enslavement. After all, writes Marjorie Garber,
If a gentleman can be made as well as born, why not make one from even the most unpromising material: a female Negro slave? The balance of the narrative [both William's text and Ellen's costume! demonstrates over and over how artificial a term "gentleman" can be, not only in terms of manners but in terms of gender. (284)
Ellen appears before her spectators not merely, as Garber suggests, an African woman dressed as a white man. If we read her tassel and tartan as the visible pieces of an invisible kilt, Ellen appears before her spectators as an African woman dressed as a white man who himself appears in a skirt! Her costume ridicules the respectability and reconsiders the sexuality of her former masters. By extension she questions their certainty that white men are allegedly the superior human form.
At the same time that they allow Ellen, albeit temporarily, to "cross over" or "pass" into white male membership, the tassel and tartan that she nattily sports distinguish her as Other from those men whom she impersonates. Specifically, they help Ellen's portrait to broach the taboo of race-mixing. Victorian language obfuscated and dodged this tinderbox subject with such pseudoscientific, murky terms as miscegenation and amalgamation. By evoking images of a detached, unbiased science guilelessly reporting on self-evident rules of racial hierarchy, such terms camouflaged the white supremacist discourse that was the genuine language of enslavement. Such terms effaced the brutal realities and brusque arbitraries of race-mixing: that Black women and girls were raped, that marriage to another man did not protect an enslaved woman from rape by her master, that fathers raped their daughters and brothers raped their sisters, that fathers denied the children of their rape and usually retained these children in their families as their slaves, that few children of rape were considered to be elevated enough by the infusion of white blood to be educated at colleges like Wilberforce or even liberated by their masters, that no Southern jurisdiction would prosecute or adjudicate the rape of a Black woman or girl. Rather than confront the atrocities of these rapes, the Southern states instead demonized the female victims. They rationalized that Black women were Delilahs who seduced otherwise God-fearing men, and they reversed the tale so that simian African males menaced cherubic white virgins. The Northern states, too, had been consensual partners in this conspiracy of deceit. Both South and North feared to discuss truthfully the dynamics of racial mixture, "for the separation of slaves from free men depended on a clear demarcation of the races" (Jordan 178).
When the racially mixed Ellen Craft faces spectators, the tassel and tartan that decorate her outfit are emblems that her white skin, her means of escaping bondage, is ironically a consequence of systematic rape, that catalyst of amalgamation that the system of enslavement trivialized and ignored. Because Ellen herself stands before us as a product of this rape, her body ventures the subject of miscegenation with serious effect.(6) Freed from the language of her husband's printed text that tenderly circumnavigates this taboo, Ellen's ornamented body in the frontispiece engraving discloses brazenly the authentic (under)pinnings of the race-mixing paranoia. The Anglicized tassel and tartan involve Ellen's European-African face in a dialogue of visual signs and meanings about the roles of white Americans in the ugly open "secret" of rape.
Like the "model of the pen-penis writing on the virgin page," a model Susan Gubar finds a metaphor that "excludes woman from the creation of culture, even as it reifies her as an artifact within culture" (77), the tassel pinned upon Ellen's shoulder and the tartan sashed across her breast remind spectators of both physical and psychological controls that white patriarchy sought to inscribe upon the bodies of nineteenth-century Black women. To her master, Ellen the slave had functioned merely as a product or beast of burden whose worth was measured by the sweat of her enormous labors and the infant fruit of her prodigious reproductive capacities. The consequence of her white blood could neither Anglicize Ellen the chattel nor deliver her and her children from the fate of enslavement.
The tassel and tartan on the free Ellen's shoulder and breast emblematize another adjustment she must make to a patriarchal code. In Northern quasi-freedom, Ellen must adjust not to enslavement but to domesticity. Here the free Ellen operates as another kind of product, one "sold" to the abolitionist communities of America and Britain, in the marketplace of emancipation and reform as a "true woman." She was better than a slave but had she eliminated her own spirit from the picture?
The engraving of Ellen finally can be read or decoded as a critique of the tenuous control she claimed on her own printed texts. As we know from William's recollections in Running a Thousand Miles of preparIng the disguise, much of Ellen's costume performs the double duties of both presenting her as a man and preventing the disaster of detection. Green spectacles, for example, camouflage her eyes and prepare her to "get on better" with her fellow male travelers (35). For similar purposes Ellen wears two poultices or bandages. One covers her hand as a reason to excuse her from having to write her name:
It then occurred to [Ellen] that the smoothness of herface might betray her; so she decided to make another poultice, and put it in awhite handkerchief to be worn under the chin, up the cheeks, and to tie over the head. This nearly hid the expression of the countenance as well as the beardless chin. ((34-35)
This second poultice serves the purpose of concealing Ellen's marvelous escapade and protecting her from suspicion by silencing her. "My wife's being muffled in the poultices, &c.," William explains, "furnished a plausible excuse for avoiding general conversation, of which most Yankee travellers are passionately fond" (36).
Ironically, "because the likeness could not have been taken well with it on"(35), this facial monstrosity is omitted in the frontispiece engraving and other extensively circulated renditions of Ellen in the Southern planter's disguise. Yet Ellen's unmuffled mouth in the frontispiece likeness does not bespeak the fact that William's narrative snaps it shut. "This book is not intended as a full history of the life of my wife, nor of myself," William cautions readers in the Preface (iii-iv). His statement ominously presages his book's treatment of Ellen. In spite of her pivotal role in their escape (she invents most key elements of her disguise), Ellen does not tell her own story here, nor are her words even transcribed verbatim in an interview format. Before her feet touch Northern soil, Ellen is constantly, creatively concealing objects. She shuts smuggled clothing in a chest of drawers (31); to avoid suspicion on the journey north, she conceals notes and papers she cannot read in her pocket (61); she even buries her gender, as her picture tells, in order to secure her freedom. And everything she hides, she resurrects later. All this clever but temporary concealment on her part is complicated in William's book by his own efforts to eliminate permanently these selfsame bright traits. For practical purposes, Ellen utters little so as not to draw suspicion to their escape. For ideological reasons, a "nervous and timid" (83) Ellen "shrinks" at tense moments (29-30, 79) or bursts into "violent sobs" (41). As text, Ellen becomes a projection of patriarchal pressures to control her and to remind us that silence and shadow constitute her preordained places. Motivated, understandably, to persuade (and to market to) a nineteenth-century audience according to their standards of cultivation, William muzzles or suffocates Ellen with the problematic discourse of true womanhood.
William's tactic reduces valuation of Ellen to that of a "weaker vessel" at the same time that it raises her. He accomplishes something akin to the "symbolic effacement" of women that Carole Boyce Davies has traced in the canon of African male writers. Davies theorizes that the maternal and asexual roles to which female subjects in this canon have been assigned are roles which symbolize the limitations imposed upon real African women in patriarchal orders (254-57). In a similar manner, William pedestals - and silences - Ellen in his narrative. He contrasts her frozen features in the frontispiece picture with the motion and momentum of his title on the opposite page.(7)
The most revolting feature in chattel Slavery is the degradation of woman. It allies the community where it is allowed, to savagism and barbarism, and even makes it, in some respects, more degraded. It not only makes woman a chattel a beast of burden; but it sinks her to a lower depth.
She may become a mother, but not a wife. There is in Slavery no real marriage - only the shadow, the mockery of wedlock. What passes under the name of marriage, is but a sort of concubinage, which exists not at the will of the parties, but at the will, the whim, caprice, or interest of another.
The children of the slave woman are not hers, or their father's, but the property, like calves and colts, of the owner of the mother. If her children are daughters, they and their children are all chattels, and the offspring of all their female descendants, not the third and fourth generations only, but the end of time. (Anon., "Woman and Slavery" 16)
Congress's passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 implicated even "free" Northern Black women in this definition - this "degradation" - of enslaved African women as mere concubines and chattels. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law entitled all slave-owners to recapture their "property" or "chattels personal" escaped to the Free States; it enlisted federal judges, commissioners, and marshals to assist in this enterprise; and it engendered the exodus of hundreds of Southern fugitives from New England to parts Canadian or across the Atlantic. Passage of the law impelled even the Crafts to sail for England to evade sure re-interment in the living death of enslavement. In England the Crafts found steady if various employments, pursued their educations, and nurtured one daughter and four sons. Yet the many problematic dimensions that Ellen posed to American audiences were not overlooked in descriptions and displays of the Crafts in British antislavery propaganda.
While American newspapers filibustered the dilemma of Ellen Craft's gender and racial genealogy, reports of her presentations to overflowing British audiences vindicated her humanity and womanhood. Published in the antislavery organs of Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and shipped fortnightly to America by steamer for reprinting in the Liberator and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, such reports converted Ellen from a mulatto anomaly to one whose mixed ancestral heritage became incidental to her near-whiteness and bona fide femininity. Ellen had become by 1851, with notice of her disembarkation on Liverpool's shore, as white and womanly as Millard Fillmore was Presidential. And both British and American correspondents unilaterally stretched the analogy in order to elevate her as a paragon of Yankee citizenship. They eulogized the Ellen still supposed a sunken slave. They visualized a new, blue-ribbon Mrs. Craft, the toast of fund-raising banquets and fine soirees who epitomized all-American qualities - this not only to decry the hypocrisy of the so-called "land of the free," but also pointedly to declare the moral victory of monarchical England over its upstart colonial nemesis.
Preoccupied by rape and concubinage, by maternity and marriage, by economics, empire, patriarchy, perversion, concealment, and disclosure, American sightings of Ellen overdetermined the fabric of her race and gender. In contrast, British sightings of Mrs. Craft basted these layers back. British sightings presented Mrs. Craft so that her whiteness and her femininity both trivialized and ridiculed the Yanks' elaborately tapestried predilections. Witness the declaration in an 1853 English antislavery tract that she "is a gentle, refined-looking young creature . . ., as fair as most of her British sisters, and in mental qualifications their equal too" ("Singular" 8). In an 1851 Liberator announcement of the Crafts' safe passage abroad, reprinted from the Liverpool Mercury, an unidentified reporter similarly lionizes her to be "so nearly white that only an American's keen-sightedness would detect her affinity to the proscribed race" ("William and Ellen" 14).
The "keen-sightedness" of Americans is by the British press adduced, where race is concerned, to be a myopic one. The debilitating Blackness of the "nearly white" Mrs. Craft is by the British press categorized as another self-serving American construction, a construction as invented and merchandised as the spinning jenny, the repeating rifle, and the cotton girl.
As another example of this strategy, an account of a meeting between Mrs. Craft and Lady Byron, in William Wells Brown's American Fugitive in Europe (1855), reconstructs Ellen rhetorically from Black to white and beast to woman. Brown, the Polaris of the 1850s expatriate constellation, had been first to relate fully the events of the Crafts' escape in the American antislavery newspapers (Farrison 137). He had immediately taken the pair under his wing and accompanied them on lecture junkets along New England's abolitionist circuit. Later, he had acclimated the couple to the British milieu and escorted them on speaking tours throughout the Kingdom. In a small English county, he had observed a stranger, "a Lady, apparently not more than fifty years of age," walk "a narrow passage" to "a small but neat room, with plain furniture." In that room sat "a young woman, busily engaged in sewing, with a spelling-book laying open on her lap." Brown identifies the "illustrious lady" as the widow of Lord Byron. The "diligent" and "well-bred" young woman, so studious of her sewing that she does not sense a presence in the room, is none other than that "poor exile" and former slave, Mrs. Craft (American Fugitive 219-20).
By exhibiting the women as different on the basis of age alone, Brown presents Mrs. Craft, though a stranger and a slave, as one as "white" and feminine as the English lady of landed title. By equalizing both women - "two distinguished persons" - Brown pressures American audiences to see racial biases for what they are: fabrications and fallacious assertions of white supremacy. "Ellen Craft," he concludes the description, "is as white as most white women. . . . But Ellen Craft had the misfortune of being born in one of the Slave States of the American Union, and that was enough [italics added] to cause her to be driven into exile for daring to escape from American despotism" (American Fugitive 220).
Condemned by William Craft as a "mock-free republic" (Running 93), the United States in the 1850s still had not granted the freedom that its own former tyrant, England, had conceded, at least on paper, to its former captives in the British West Indies. In the 1850s North there existed vestigial enslavement with Blacks of all histories trapped in an amber cast of substandard housing, subsistence wages, and suspicion of imminent impressment into lifetime bondage. Both British friends of the slaves and American fugitives abroad thus seized Ellen and William as symbols of the demonic distinctions of birth, class, fortune, and race that Uncle Sam outdistanced John Bull in upholding.(8)
William Wells Brown added abundant grist to this spectacle of the couple as evidence of America's shameful hypocrisy. He recounts in another of his memoirs, Three Years in Europe (1852), his introduction of the Crafts to the celebrated authoress and abolitionist Harriet Martineau. Martineau had blandly observed,
I would that every woman in the British Empire could hear that tale [of the Crafts' escape! as I have, so that they might know how their own sex was treated in that boasted land of liberty. It seems strange . . . that one so white and so lady-like as Mrs. Craft should have been a slave and forced to leave the land of her nativity and seek asylum in a foreign country. (200)
Similarly, for the record of the Scotland Advertiser, and reprinted in the Liberator, Brown presents both himself and the Crafts as victims of America the despot:
The name of the United States is becoming a hissing and a by-word in the mouths of the inhabitants of every clime. My country is indeed the land of oppression. There is not a rood of territory over which the "stars and stripes" fly, on which William and Ellen Craft, or myself, could be protected by law. Whenever the American flag is seen flying on the continent of the New World, it points to us as slaves; and we enjoy to-night a degree of freedom in your town that we could not, if we were in the land of our birth! ("Anti-Slavery" 37)
Whether in his own words or those of abolitionist colleagues, Brown exhibits the Crafts as proof of America's humiliating descent into a despotism lower than that of even its former oppressor. Rather than presenting Great Britain as a foreign asylum for the fugitives, Brown ventures it as closer to America the "sweet land of liberty" than the real America itself. He visualizes such fugitives as William and Ellen Craft - "intelligent," poised, "retired" - as behaving more American in the factory towns of the Old World than the Yanks do on the frontiers of the New.
When Brown and the Crafts delivered their evening lectures from British stages, they followed a well-rehearsed, disciplined, constantly refined choreography that deviated only slightly from the routine they had established in America (Farrison 136-37). "Brown spoke against American slavery, William told of their escape, and at the end of his narrative, in a tear-jerking scene, Ellen was invited up on the stage" (Blackett, "Fugitive Slaves" 47). In this manner, the three fugitives became an 1850s tableau vivant of the canvas panorama of slavery's ills that Brown displayed daily to titillate local attendance at the evening's main event.(9)
Yet this program, like so much of antislavery propaganda, again silenced and commodified Ellen. At most, it authorized her to respond rather than discuss. At worst, it bounded her response to a cordial and curt coming-out: to a curtsy, to a nod, to a few courteous words of acknowledgment to the crowd. As the Scotland Advertiser reported on a typical program,
When the meeting was about to disperse, a general wish was expressed that Mrs. Craft, who was seated on the platform, should present herself to the audience. She seemed rather reluctant to do so, but on the persuasion of the Provost and several other gentlemen, she consented to offer a standing position on the left side of the former. . . . At first she seemed abashed, but the cheering continued, she courtesied [sic] gracefully, and retired. ("Anti-Slavery" 37)
This presentation merchandised Ellen on the European political marketplace, with the orator's platform replacing the auction block. (Her escort by the Provost bore calamitous resemblance to the Auctioneer's sinister presence in Dixie's human market stalls.) No longer disguised as a man, but instead displayed as a specimen of Victorian femininity, Ellen was "exhibited" to British Victorian sentiments in the service of abolition. Silent, demure, Ellen debuted onstage as a woman. Her silence and bashfulness enhanced the abolitionists' tactics of transmuting her identity racially and sexually from sullied quadroon slave to civilized, authentic "white" lady.
The appearance of William and Ellen Craft in London at the 1851 World's Fair - dubbed by the press "The Great Exhibition" - marked the nexus of these public spectacles. In an atmosphere of urbanity and pacifism, the Exhibition proposed to showcase all the latest technologies and manufactories of the scientific and industrial revolutions. The abolitionists had other plans. Well before the Exhibition opened to international crowds, abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic calculated how they could seize the event as a forum for a conspicuous confrontation with American slave-holders (Blackett, Beating 101-02 and Building 32-33). Writing from Dublin in the Liberator, the American abolitionist Henry C. Wright suggested the public display of "implements of American Slavery, of American manufacture" (36). Whips and chains and collars - complemented by representations of floggings, auctions, and slave hunts - would embarrass the American contingents. Yet these inventions of "American industry" (37) would not certify America's disgrace. William Wells Brown and his panorama must be displayed. Henry "Box" Brown and his crate must be displayed.(10) William Craft, too, and Mrs. Craft, costumed in the masculine garments of her escape, must be displayed - both standing on an auction block!
Although the fugitives were "exhibited under the world's huge glass case" (Still 374), no one at the Great Exhibition fully carried out this suggestion. No one smuggled in the ghastly "implements." No one surreptitiously hung engravings. No American fugitive slipped past admission with his or her lurid souvenir of enslavement.(11) Instead, at least as far as the Crafts were concerned, antislavery forces carried out their spectacle in synch with their tried-and-true strategies of deracinating the fugitives, declaring them social and intellectual equals, and designating all America to be a tyranny.
On a crowded Exhibition Saturday with the Royal Family and entourage in attendance, William and Ellen and William Wells Brown each strolled arm-in-arm with a prominent British abolitionist of the opposite gender. According to another British antislavery friend, "This arrangement was purposely made in order that there might be no appearance of patronizing the fugitives, but that it might be shown that we regarded them as our equals, and honored them for their heroic escape from slavery" (Still 375). With their Blackness no deterrent to the fugitives' grace or poise, this "arrangement" deconstructed Americans' dogma of African inferiority. And now, instead of a male disguise, race operated as Ellen's masquerade. With her Blackness slipped in a context undetected (a recognizably white woman escorted by a white man), Ellen focused this "arrangement" on the arranged, invented racial biases that scaffolded doctrines of white supremacy.
The presentation of the fugitives was dramatized even more by their decision to promenade in the Crystal Palace. The locus of each country's exhibition, the Palace itself commemorated mass consumerism and mercantile culture, a rapidly erected general store of glass and iron plying affordable pleasures to an expanding middle class. The Palace and its national exhibits also functioned to yoke modern science to high art, to harness neo-classical beauty with Victorian utility. It obsessed with both the aesthetics and pragmatics of machine-manufactured furnishings, conveyances, books, tools, and appliances.
Excessive in production and manufactured goods, deficient in art, the American exhibition [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] had lost some face to the flamboyance of its Old World competitors. This imbalance benefited the fugitives. When the former slaves strolled amidst America's natural abundance, they problematized their people's deprived positions as chattels or commodities. And when the fugitives strolled amidst America's "barrels of salt beef and pork, her beautiful white lard, her Indian-corn and corn meal, her rice and tobacco, her beef tongues, dried peas, and a few bags of cotton" (Brown, American Fugitive 166), their stroll was a signal that whites, too, lost as much as they profited from enslavement's capital gains. For America's natural, predominantly Southern cornucopia seemed supplied at the expense of its intellectual and cultural advancement. At the source of the nation's disappointing exhibit of the "higher" realms of art and learning was its exhibition and exploitation of Blacks.
The fugitives' performance, finally, assaulted white Americans once again with the knell of their national moral disgrace, one that even England dared not perpetrate:
. . . who dreamed of any impropriety in a gentleman of character and standing . . . walking arm-in-arm with a colored woman; or an elegant and accomplished young lady . . . becoming the promenading companion of a colored man? Did the English peers and peeresses? Not the most aristocratic among them. Did the representatives of any other country have their notions of propriety shocked by the matter? None but Americans. (Still 376)
By their whispered outrage and smothered indignation, the Americans at the Fair leveled a self-condemnation made more acute from the opposite response of their British rivals. To borrow from William Wells Brown (American Fugitive 164), the "amalgamation of rank" celebrated at the Exhibition contrasted with America's doctrines against racial amalgamation. The fair-goers' "forgetfulness of cold formalities of ranks and grades" collided with America's cold and complicated legal codes that distinguished slave from freeborn and led to segregated Black communities in the North. Thus, though their promenade was unsuccessful in triggering a verbal confrontation between pro- and antislavery factions, the fugitives once again proved the spectacle of their bodies to be forceful ammunition against slavery.
Rise up! ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech. - Isaiah 32:9 (Title-page epigraph from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)
Along with her text, Ellen Craft as exhibit or artifact testifies to the price that was demanded for appropriation of African Americans' lives by editors, publishers, abolitionists, amanuenses, and friends. As text, Ellen's story addresses issues of sexuality, femininity, patriarchy, politics both internecine and multinational, racial migration, and white supremacy. As artifact, Ellen affirms all these and additionally points to the sophisticated promotional and marketing techniques that abolitionists employed transnationally in order to raise cash and converts.
In her rare published 1852 letter Ellen closes her correspondence to her abolitionist friends with "Yours very truly." Her "Yours" can be interpreted as a mere formality, as a formal declaration that her letter now draws to a close. Yet these words of Ellen's brief and conventional farewell again point to the penetration of her story by multiple voices, at times discordant and antagonistic. "Yours" functions in Ellen's letter as a testament to the many groups who commanded possession of "our" (her and husband William's) story: to the British and American abolitionists to whom she and her husband were beholden for support, to the diasporic fugitive communities for whom she and her husband were symbols of survival and achievement, and to the hostile proslavery estates with whom she and her husband constantly did battle.
As text and as artifact, Ellen Craft's story in particular calls attention to the sacrifices and silences that nineteenth-century African American autobiographers made to tell the truth of both enslavement and provisional freedom. Thorough examination of their texts, and of cotangential visual representations, will provide important evidence in the process of literary scholarship.
1. Ellen Craft's letter is included as Document 49 in Vol. 1 of Ripley (British Isles 330-31 and Witnesses 78-79).
2. Barbara Welter's essay on the "cult of true womanhood" still remains the classic discussion of nineteenth-century ideologies of domesticity and femininity. She identifies four virtuous qualities that constituted the ideal characteristics of white women in American culture: piety or religious devotion, purity or chastity, submissiveness to male prerogative, and domesticity.
3. In other correspondence besides her own, Ellen Craft is constructed according to received conventions that define an "ideal" woman as maternal, demure and gentle, and focused upon the affairs of children, husband, and home. Ellen is described by one Northern friend as possessing "great self-control" and "perfect sweetness of temper and grace of manner" (Higginson 51). In a letter published after the Civil War, a visitor to England found Ellen sewing clothing "diligently" far the newly emancipated slaves and arranging to reunite with her long-lost mother (Child, Freedmen 204).
4. In a correspondence to abolitionist Samuel May printed in the Liberator of December 17, 1852, predating the appearance of Ellen's letter by about one week, William affirms the liberational consequences of wife Ellen's domestic duties: "l know that you and other friends will heartily rejoice to hear that my wife has given birth to our first free born babe, on the 22nd of October, and I am more than thankful to say that both he and his dear mother are now doing well. It is true, her sickness was of the severest nature, yet she bore it all firmly, and without a murmur, because she knew that she was not bringing a human being into the world to be brutified, but one whom the blessings of liberty and the pursuits of happiness may ever rest upon . . ." (Woodson 263). With his evocation of the Declaration of Independence - "that all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" - William elevates Ellen's role as mother above that of mere servant to agent of her children's freedom and catalyst of their opportunity. Her role of mother is inextricably interconnected with the progress of her progeny and her race.
5. Related to these silent performances and accomplishing similar purposes are the semi-nude, kneeling, fettered male and female slaves exhibited in abolitionist iconography. See Yellin's book-length discussion.
6. Marjorie Garber finds evidence in William's narrative of how "erotic race-mixing . . . is . . . cast in a comic mode" (284). She points, for example, to an incident during the journey in which two young Southern belles flirt with William's "master": "After he had been lying a little while the ladies, I suppose, thought he was asleep; so one of them gave a long sigh, and said, in a quiet fascinating tone, 'Papa, he seems to be a very nice young gentleman.' But before papa could speak, the other lady quickly said, 'Oh! dear me, I never felt so much for a gentleman in my life!' To use an American expression, 'they fell in love with the wrong chap'" (Running 60). If Black Ellen could so succeed at playing the "nice [white] young gentlemen," how did that render the prohibitions on race-mixing based on the inferior nature of Blackness? If Blackness were a state of being so palpable and repulsive in its qualities, so degenerative in its prospects for future generations, how could these two white ladies and other white women and men regularly trespass the bounds of race for the sake of affection and romance? How could such pure white beings love such prurient Black ones?
William's use of the comic mode to erode assumptions about race-mixing appears to be a consistent device in his narrative. In a railroad car at Richmond, William's "master," the disguised Mrs. Craft, encounters a fellow passenger, all aflutter with handkerchief and handbag, who also happens to be a slaveowning mistress. The mistress reveals that she has recently sold a female slave, who "took on a great deal" about a forced separation from her husband and young son. But the mistress dismisses this episode, confiding that the woman "'was very handsome, and much whiter than I am; and therefore will have no trouble in getting another husband'" (63). Of course, here the joke is on the mistress, who does not realize that she reclines beside the very kind of "white" Black woman whom she so abhors. The ridiculous aspects of this scene again enable William to demystify the guarded deceits of race-mixing. Just as Ellen and this mistress occupy the same car, so, too, did white sister and African sister and white wife and African "wife" occupy the same plantation home, connected by the open secret of a mutual white father and a mutually miscegenated past.
7. The muffling or muzzling of female voice is a common trope in antebellum narratives of Black writers, although this usually signifies the inhumanity and monstrosity of slaveholders. In Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), the protagonist Frado is punished by her mistress, who props Frado's mouth open with a piece of wood (35). Later, her mouth is stuffed with a towel (83).
In counterpoint to this muffling of female voice, Josephine Brown, daughter of William Wells Brown, casts Ellen as the more assertive member of the couple who without question initiates their escape. In her 1856 biography of her famous father, in a full chapter devoted to the Crafts' history, Brown also inverts William's account so that Ellen is the one who musters the flagging spirits of her husband. According to William Craft, "After I thought of the plan, I suggested it to my wife, but at first she shrank from the idea" (Running 29-30). In Brown's fictionalization, William "seemed to despair of escaping from slavery by following his wife's plans" until Ellen commanded, "'Come, William . . . . Don't be a coward!'" (Biography 77). The rest of the saga is well-known. In reversing the roles of wife and husband, Brown points to Ellen's own wise realization of the politics that had silenced her story.
8. Ellen herself, in her letter to America's press, had employed a discourse that accused America or abandoning its republican principles. She had alluded to these lines penned by the eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper: "Slaves cannot breathe in England: if their lungs / Receive our air, that moment they are free; / They touch our country, and their shackles fall" (Task 2.40-42). Instead of turning her cheek to the slaveholders' "calumny" of all Black women, Ellen retaliates with her own slur upon the United States and the lip service that Americans give to their country's ideals of liberty, equality, and humanity. In a voice empowered by America's principles of social equality and freedom, she exposes and subverts the commercial subtext of Southerners' discussions of enslavement. William would subsequently use these same lines of Cowper's in letters and as a title-page epigraph for his 1860 book.
9. The twenty-four-scene canvas diorama, which depicted such events from slavery as plantation life, auction of family, and Brown's own escape, was exhibited along with pamphlets of Brown's authorship that detailed the action scene by scene. See Ripley (Blacks 190-224) for a full text of the pamphlet.
10. "Box" Brown had escaped from enslavement in Richmond, Virginia, by having himself crated and shipped by rail to Pennsylvania. Miraculously, he survived the twenty-six-hour odyssey, and subsequently he toured the Northern States and Britain with the very box that had become his bridge to freedom. Often, he authenticated his account by allowing his ordeal to be recr(e)ated and, in this condition, publicly paraded through a town (Blockson 135-138; Still 81-86).
11. However, William Wells Brown did bring, as a souvenir of sorts, London's infamous Punch illustration excoriating American enslavement. The drawing, entitled "The Virginian Slave," depicted a forlorn, bare-breasted Black woman chained to a post garlanded with Old Glory. Dramatically, Brown posted the drawing with New York artist Hiram Powers's "The Greek Slave" (see Fig. 4), a romantic nude of a white slave and one of the Fair's most popular attractions (see Farrison 187-88; Still 375-76; Yellin 119-23).
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-----. The Crystal Palace Exhibition Illustrated Catalogue. 1851. New York: Dover, 1970.
-----. "Singular Escapes from Slavery." Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom. A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts, of which Half a Million are Now First Issued by the Friends of the Negro. Leeds Anti-slavery Series, No. 35, 1853. Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969.
-----. "William and Ellen Crafts, the Fugitive Slaves from Boston." Liberator 24 Jan. 1851: 14. [Rpt. from Liverpool Mercury].
-----. "Woman and Slavery." Douglass' Monthly 1.8 (Jan. 1859): 16.
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Barbara McCaskill, an assistant professor of English at the University of Georgia, cofounded The Womanist and has coedited Multicultural Literature and Literacies (SUNY Press, 1993) with Suzanne M. Miller. She is working on a book-length study of symbolic representations of Black women in the transatlantic abolition and Reconstruction press. Research for this article was funded by the Aaron Diamond Foundation through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture's Scholars-in-Residence Program.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1994|
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