Saturday, November 3, 2012

On "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom" by William and Ellen Craft ***

The transvesticism in this nineteenth-century slave-escape narrative is what drew me toward reading it. I tend of think of gender reversals as a twentieth-century phenomenon, so I'm often intrigued by such events taking place hundreds of years ago, though I suppose I shouldn't be. Such practices go back to the ancients.

In this tale, two slaves--and man and wife--make their way to the North and freedom by posing as an ill gentleman and his aid. The aid is the husband, and the gentlemen is the wife, whose color is light enough that she can pass for white. Hence, she passes, in this tale, as both a man and as a Caucasian (though, of course, that definition is itself fraught with problems, since she would have been Caucasian in the Caribbean).

The events described in the book would make for a great movie, but the execution of those events as described within the book does not do them much justice. This isn't a nail biter. We know what's going to happen, and there's little in the way of conflict.

This wasn't written, however, primarily to be sensational but rather to evince certain feelings in the reader. The Crafts begin their narrative (though it is William who does most of the writing), not with their own story, but with a summary of the evils of slavery, both in law and in practice. Some of these short anecdotes at the start of the book, I found more interesting than the narrative itself. Craft tells of a German girl taken from her family and sold into slavery (in other words, cases of whites absconded with at a young age and then sold as "blacks"). He also tells of free blacks reintroduced into slavery through fraud (in one case, a family released from slavery by one man's will was subsequently placed under another man's authority when that other man claimed to be a relative with say-so regarding whether the will could be legitimate).

Next comes the Craft narrative itself, which in some ways seems much tamer than the stories that preceded it. However, the tale also makes clear how difficult it was for a black person to make it in the antebellum South or even the North. William has no place to lay his head, while his wife, posing as a white, does quite well. But even so, not having papers to prove their identity, they run into a few snags along the way. And later, in the North, they are often denied places to stay because of their race; they get around this by having Ellen ask for a room, and then, after the deal has been struck, sneaking William in, to landlord's surprise.

The story ends with a long screed on the injustice of the American system and on the irony that in Britain the Crafts are actually able to find more freedom than in the land where the Patriots earlier fought to gain freedom from Britain.

The book is old enough to be in the public domain and can be found here among other places.

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