"A Complication of Complaints": Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom

By Samuels, Ellen | MELUS, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"A Complication of Complaints": Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom


Samuels, Ellen, MELUS


In 1845, Ellen Craft and her husband William escaped from slavery in Georgia by traveling disguised as a "white invalid gentlemen" and his valet. After a four-day journey, they arrived on free soil in Philadelphia and soon became prominent in the Boston-based abolitionist movement, telling their story to large audiences and gaining swift fame, which eventually led to pursuit by Southern agents seeking to re-enslave them. The Crafts escaped once again to England, where they authored a narrative of their escape, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in 1860 by London's William Tweedie. (1) The Crafts' narrative has received a significant amount of critical attention, much of which has focused upon the racial and gender passing perpetrated by Ellen Craft, while a secondary concern has been the prominence of the Crafts on the abolition circuit before the Civil War. (2) However, no historian or literary critic has yet grappled with the presence of disability in the narrative; while the fact that Ellen pretended to be disabled is often mentioned in the course of other concerns, disability is never treated as a social identity which can be manipulated or interpreted as can race or gender. Thus, critics such as Barbara McCaskill contextualize the narrative by listing other examples of fugitive slave cross-dressing, but do not appear concerned with the equally significant context of feigned disability and illness among enslaved African Americans (McCaskill, "Yours" 509-10). (3) While such omissions are present throughout nearly all scholarship on American slavery, I find them particularly glaring in the Crafts' example because of the repeated and essential function of disability in their narrative. (4)

Consideration of disability in the Crafts' narrative is not a matter of negating other critics' arguments, but rather of enhancing and completing them, particularly those which argue for the narrative's portrayal of a mutually constitutive relationship between race, gender, and class. Sarah Brusky, for example, is concerned with how the narrative "highlights the importance of gender to constructions of race," especially to the white race (189-190). Ellen Weinauer argues similarly that the narrative demonstrates the unfixed boundaries of race, gender, and class through Ellen's transgression of those boundaries, but suggests that gender ultimately emerges as more fixed than either race or class (38). Laura Browder claims that the narrative demonstrates "what happens when people apply the logic of class to a construct of race," based on American beliefs in the fluidity of class and the fixity of racial identity (7). Marjorie Garber is concerned to show how the figure of Ellen Craft as transvestite displaces "social anxiety from one category to another (race, class, gender)" (283). In these and other critics' analyses of Ellen Craft's "tripartite disguise" (Browder 121), the fourth crucial element of that disguise is invisible.

Yet a close reading of the narrative evolution of Ellen Craft's disguise demonstrates clearly the intimate and constitutive relationship of race, gender, class, and disability. In William's narration, he and Ellen first think of racial masquerade, suggested by Ellen's white skin. Next, they decide upon gender-crossing, due to the perceived impropriety of a white woman traveling with a black man. But the class-status of the white male persona adopted then presents the new obstacle of literacy:

   When the thought flashed across my wife's mind, that it was
   customary for travelers to register their names in the visitors'
   book at hotels, as well as in the clearance or Custom-house book at
   Charleston, South Carolina--it made our spirits droop within us. So,
   while sitting in our little room upon the verge of despair, all at
   once my wife raised her head, and with a smile upon her face, which
   was a moment before bathed in tears, said, "I think I have it!" I
   asked what it was. … 

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