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KENNELL JACKSON Introduction Traveling While Black In 1849, William Wells Brown set off for a journey to France and England. He was being sent to the Paris peace congress as a member of an American delegation. The thirty-‹ve-year-old Brown was surely a most distinctive delegate. Fifteen years earlier, he had escaped from Missouri slavery, ‹rst into Ohio and later into New York. He exempli‹ed what he called “selfculture ,”1 having taught himself to read and write extraordinarily well. He had made himself extremely well informed on political matters, an excellent conversationalist, and a stylish man. The year before the peace conference , his slave narrative had been a best-seller in America, and he had achieved ‹rst-rank status as a speaker on the American abolitionist circuit .2 It was inevitable that he would become much sought after in Paris and in England. Once overseas, he stayed in England for ‹ve years, partly to avoid being captured and returned to slavery, a prospect he faced if he went back to America. In 1855, Brown recounted his overseas experiences in The American Fugitive in Europe: Sketches of Places and People Abroad. Brown’s book is rarely read these days, but it should be, for it is an early record of a free black man participating in a considerable black cultural traf‹c. In fact, he understood that he was performing as a traveler, his book being “the ‹rst production of a Fugitive Slave as a history of travels” (iii). Existing at the time was a small, but consequential and growing, movement—a traf‹c— of black speakers and performers within the northern, free American states and across the Atlantic to Europe. Brown had already represented enslaved blacks and black runaways in America, mostly in New York and New England antislavery gatherings. Now he was stepping onto a larger stage, an international one, in Europe, where he was to become a performer in the fast-growing American-European black cultural traf‹c of the mid–nineteenth century. His experiences are a good entry point to the theme of this collection of essays. On the title page Brown wished his book to ‹nd a place in the future: “Go, little book, from this my solitude . . . The world will ‹nd thee after many days.” It has found that place, in this new effort. By 1850, northern America and parts of Europe had a well-developed black cultural traf‹c devoted to the eradication of slavery.3 It consisted of a transatlantic lecture circuit, but also more:4 rallies, meetings, marches, speeches, manifestos, newspapers, even songs and memorabilia. It engaged impressive numbers of people, especially women and women’s clubs, and by the time of Brown’s arrival in Europe, it was rapidly becoming a mass or popular culture arrayed against slavery. In large measure, this culture’s authenticity depended on one luminous moment, when former slaves testi‹ed about their trauma in slavery, detailed their brave escapes, and in turn excited an optimistic hope for a future world free of slavery. This was, in cultural anthropologist Johannes Fabian’s expression, one of the “moments of freedom” for former slaves.5 But it was simultaneously highly problematic. Every black person standing before the largely white antislavery audience —often called “friends of the Negro,” Brown reported (216)—became a performer who had to negotiate perceptions of slave blackness. Balancing a black presenter’s sense of self with an audience’s need for a particular black type was tricky. Abolitionist campaigners sometimes desired a plantation vernacular from speakers fully capable of formal English. Still, within this problematic moment, a cultural exchange between blacks and others was going on. This cultural traf‹c contained many noble political possibilities and many cultural anxieties—what one might call a rich Ellisonian mixture, one that still surrounds contemporary black cultural performance. For his part, Brown rose to the occasion. He performed deftly on the international stage of the 1850s.6 He helped advance the view that blacks had great intellectual capacities. Antislavery gatherings at which he gave speeches—“more than one thousand public meetings” by his own count (32)—were his primary performance venue. Other stages appeared when he met and was feted by the great, including Victor Hugo, Alexis de Tocqueville , Tennyson, and Harriet Martineau. Other venues of his performances were his visits with farmers, among the working class, and meetings with London’s free blacks.7 On these tiny stages, he strove to BLACK CULTURAL TRAFFIC...


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