Sunday, August 26, 2018

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860)

One of the best book titles ever, first. As a slave narrative, it's in the mode of the adventure story, an escape tale almost exclusively. It's almost fun because the plan of William and Ellen Craft is so clever and yet full of deadly risk. It offers the usual view of human beings as property that was so common then and seems so grotesque now. The pervasive acceptance of that in these narratives remains one of their most disturbing elements. But there's less of that here. The plan is that Ellen will pose as a man and William's master, as the two of them travel together. Ellen is a "quadroon" (their word) and can pass for white. She cannot read or write, neither of them can, so they make her appear to have an injured right hand, and she asks others to sign and fill things out for her. Everybody uses the N-word and abolitionists are reviled. Ellen is privy to some unguarded conversations about the slavery question, which was then becoming more and more central in American life. The close calls here are suspenseful, often involving the necessity to show papers for William, which of course they don't have. At one point someone is suspicious because Ellen won't sign something. At another point someone gives her a business card and she makes a decision not to look at it because she might give herself away if it is upside down and she doesn't turn it right. William is the author and he occasionally indulges an impulse to be smug about the people they fool. But I'll give him that—what they did was brave. Going with the idea that many of these slave narratives were shaped toward simple points, the emphasis here is on their intelligence and resourcefulness. They could plan the initial getaway with lots of time to gather information and think it through. But once they were traveling north—a thousand miles is reasonably literal—they had to make their story work with whatever they encountered. And they did. It's a remarkable story. Sad then that they finally realized they still weren't safe in the North, as fugitive slaves, perhaps not even in Canada, and eventually settled in London.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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