William and Ellen Craft: “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes. (742)

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The story of William and Ellen Craft is a fascinating look at Atlantic history. This couple were born as slaves in Georgia but they ended their lives active in the suppression of international slavery, working in Africa and England, even starting a school in Africa. Later they became active in the Reconstruction South before their efforts to start up an industrial school in their home town, before it was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, agents of the post-Civil War counter-revolution. They eventually started a cooperative farm. Their life forms a nice circle of Atlantic currents.

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The narrative has no byline and is written from William Craft’s perspective, but I will assume that they were shared authors since they shared the experiences that led to the publication of the narrative. It seems that the two of them were together on all of their travels and labors. For all we know, the inspiration for this narrative was Ellen Craft but the voice was given to William to meet the expectations of a patriarchal audience.

The main story of Ellen and William Craft’s narrative is the means of their escape from slavery in the Deep South. Most of the slave narratives came from slaves who escaped from the Border States. It was rare for slaves from Georgia to escape. The Crafts’ method involved Ellen—a light skinned woman—posing as an invalid with William posing as his personal servant. The plan worked fairly well, with only a few snags. The train station in Baltimore was the most troublesome, which was on close lookout for escaping slaves.

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The narrative begins with a point essential to the Crafts’ escape: the flexibility of the color line in the United States. The Crafts discuss how even whites could be enslaved, mistaken for biracial people. White parents even sold some of their children into slavery. They discuss at length a case of a German girl who was enslaved until she was properly identified. This same ambiguity helped Ellen and William Craft escape slavery, but the Crafts want to go father and use it to suggest an internal weakness of the logic of slavery, at least among those who argued that slavery was a good system because it was based on race. (This is a common thread in antebellum pro-slavery thought, which argued for the system from a position of natural law.) In an interesting way the Crafts hacked the system of slavery, including the tendency of masters to move slaves around the country.

The Crafts’ main audience seems to be English readers, so they spend quite a bit of time describing the system of slavery in the United States, going over things that would have been obvious to readers in the United States. I wonder how much impact slave narratives like this one had on the Civil War era diplomacy, which led to the effective isolation of the Confederacy despite the economic ties between England and the South. I would like to know more about this history of reading slave narratives around the world. And of course, it was not strictly a U.S. genre.

The Crafts are also a useful introduction to the dilemma of free blacks in the antebellum South, or more precisely the reasons for the intense hatred toward free blacks shared by the white Southern planting class. “They have no mercy upon, nor sympathy for, any negro whom they cannot enslave. They say that God made the black man to be a slave for the white, and act as though they really believed that all free persons of colour are in open rebellion to a direct command from heave, and that they (the whites) are God’s chosen agents to out upon them unlimited vengeance.” (701–702) They follow this with a description of legal efforts to make freedom impossible for blacks in the South, by expelling such people.

Although not one of the most well-known slave narratives, it is one of the best to explore the subtle line between freedom and slavery and the flexibility of the color line, which is itself a major theme of post-war black writing. I think we can also look at the Crafts as a couple of Atlantic radicals and use them to articulate the international dimension of their struggle.

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