- Three Williams and a Subversive Text:Collaboration, Communal Agency, and Resistant Identities in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860)
Although less anthologized and read in the contemporary American academy than other slave narratives of its era, such as those by Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, or Harriet Jacobs, the tale of William and Ellen Craft's escape from slavery in Macon, Georgia, in late December 1848 both captivated abolitionist audiences and enraged pro-slavery readers in its day. Not published as memoir until 1860, prior to that time their story was told in newspaper accounts, on stage, in abolitionist literature, and on the abolitionist lecture circuit. (The two most famous re-tellings of the Crafts' story to appear before their own book were William Wells Brown's depiction that appears in his 1853 novel Clotel and Lydia Maria Child's 1855 play The Stars and Stripes: A Melo-Drama.) The young married couple's own version, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, had to wait for publication until they gained literacy and financial support in England following their pre-Civil War emigration (McCaskill, Love 25-26, 48, 59, 64). Their brave flight to freedom fascinated readers not simply for their daring but also for the manner in which they accomplished it: unassisted by outside help and unable to read more than the block letters of the alphabet, let alone write, they successfully managed to flee with light-skinned Ellen posing as the young slave master of her darker-hued husband. Disguised in drag, she passed as both white and male by imitating a young Southern plantation aristocrat. [End Page 9]
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Cross-dressing to impersonate someone of the opposite gender was not itself particularly unusual for escaping slaves. Barbara McCaskill, for example, has pointed out that it was a common enough tactic on the Underground Railroad ("'Yours' " 509-10; see also Garber 284). So, too, was the choice of December as the month for their escape. "On occasion slaves used Christmas to take control of their lives in ways that were far from symbolic," writes cultural historian Stephen Nissenbaum, adding that "the season offered them unique opportunities to escape slavery altogether by running away, taking advantage of the common Christmas privilege of traveling freely . . ." (291). Seizing that opportunity is exactly what Ellen and William did:
Some of the best slaveholders will sometimes give their favorite slaves a few days' holiday at Christmas time; so, after no little amount of perseverance on my wife's part, she obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper . . . and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but . . . it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the "peculiar institution" of chains and stripes.(Craft and Craft 22)
What was unique about the Crafts' own stratagem, though, was Ellen's active role in the subterfuge and her impersonation of both the opposite gender and the oppressor race and planter class. With her act of self-transformation, the couple directly confronted the "sorry prejudices and spurious persuasions for enslavement based on assumptions of gender, class, and race" common to the pro-slavery agenda and to white audiences of the time more generally (McCaskill, "'Yours' " 511). Working as a pair to escape and, in collaboration with others (in particular with William Wells Brown), to tell their story afterward, they asserted a communal agency based upon resistant identities united in solidarity against the dominating political and economic system of slavery and against elitist, patriarchal, white supremacist ideology itself. At the heart of that collaborative effort lies the agency of Ellen herself in her ambiguously gendered and racialized liminal persona.
For some time, Running has tended to be read in terms of Hazel Carby's influential idea of the "cult of true womanhood" and...