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  • Outside the Box: Henry Box Brown and the Politics of Antislavery Agency
  • John Ernest (bio)

Henry "box" Brown's escape from slavery in 1849 became almost immediately one of the most celebrated stories of liberation in the history of American enslavement.1 Inspired, according to Brown, by God's response to his prayers, Brown placed himself in a crate and had himself shipped by Adams Express from Richmond to Philadelphia, where he was received on March 24, 1849 in the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In September of that year, the first narrative of Brown's escape, written by the white abolitionist Charles Stearns, was published: Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks upon the Remedy for Slavery. In May, 1851, Brown, now living in England and well known both for his escape and his public performances, published in Manchester the second version of his narrative (and the "First English Edition"): Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. The larger story presented in these two narratives (and, indeed, throughout Brown's public career) might be framed by a simple question: What are the possibilities for black agency in a white supremacist culture? The scholarship on Brown generally references his narratives largely to find his agency elsewhere—in his spectacular performances on the antislavery lecture circuit, where Brown restaged his escape in the box and displayed his moving panorama, Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, and beyond, as Brown presented himself at various times as an African Prince, as "King of all Mesmerizers," and as "Prof. H. Box [End Page 1] Brown," the magician (Ruggles 158, 167).2 In this way Brown can be recognized as a particularly creative performer who negotiated a kind of freedom by playing with and against the racial assumptions of American and British culture.

But Brown's narratives are valuable, I suggest, precisely because they both demonstrate and complicate the terms of that performative art by representing the narrative and discursive dynamics of what Saidiya V. Hartman has termed "performing blackness," a concept that refers to those cultural forums, interactions, and daily rituals in and by which "white dominance and power" have been continually (re)defined and maintained (57). Well aware of the cultural order that both resulted from and secured white dominance, Brown reports in the introduction of his 1851 Narrative that, though more able writers have addressed the subject, he feels "impelled by the voice of [his] own conscience" "to add yet one other testimony of, and protest against, the foul blot on the state of morals, of religion, and of cultivation in the American republic"(3). But although Brown credits his escape to divine inspiration, and although his public presentation was from the beginning rich in Christian imagery, his position as a moral representative—indeed, embodiment—of the antislavery cause remains difficult to identify. Richard Newman suggests that preparing the 1851 version was a matter of editing "Stearns' overblown rhetoric [in the 1849 version] out of the narrative" (xii), but in fact Stearns's narration remains a guiding presence in the 1851 Narrative; and although the 1851 narrative includes in its title the familiar phrase "written by himself," Brown probably did not write it himself.3 The 1851 Narrative, then, extends beyond the edited palimpsest to a more complex narrative and cultural performance—indeed, a multivocal performance involving a range of those invested in antislavery religious discourse. But the tensions between the two narratives make it difficult to locate let alone read any singular vision of Brown's understanding of the moral truth revealed by his experience.

The search for Brown's voice of conscience, then, involves not a resolution of those tensions by privileging one narrative over the other but rather a reading of the two narratives together as a complex representation of the public sphere available to Brown. To be sure, the 1851 narrative constitutes a motivated departure from the 1849 version, and it should accordingly be viewed not simply as a prologue or supplement to his more famous public performances...


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