Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Art and Craft of Passing out of Slavery

I'd like to highlight a different story of racial passing and this story includes gender bending too! Dolezal seems to be enjoying her spotlight a little much and I thought we could give a little attention now to a more noble passing.

My now defunct one-woman show featured the true story (and real quotes) of a legally black female slave who dressed as a white man to escape slavery in the South. These are the sorts of conditions that make deception something I can sympathize with. This segment of my show did not feel right in first person as I worried (silly me!) I could be insulting, appropriating, and presumptuous if I donned a fake accent and pretended to be a technically "black" slave, so it alone was written in 3rd person. Since the show is never now likely to see the light of day, I present to you: 1/6th of the moth-balled Sisterhood of Kings: True Stories of Women in Power and Pants. In it, I portrayed six women who dressed up as men to achieve their dreams, or just survive.  Please note that this is written as a script, not an essay.


Ellen Craft grew up in her father's house in the deep South, Georgia. It was the 1840's and her father had slaves. One of her father's slaves was Ellen's mother. And although Ellen appeared white, not black, she was still legally black and a slave. When she was 11, she was given to her older half sister as a wedding gift and that is how she came to live in Macon, Georgia and to eventually meet William, also a slave.
Her half sister was thrilled with their marriage because any children that Ellen and William had would automatically be her property, to sell or use as she wished.

And you thought you had problems with your sister.

Being actual people, with actual dreams of their own, and actual feelings, Ellen and William decided that as long as they were slaves they would never have children. They would never bring in to that world a child, a person, whose fate would be to be treated as property. Never. But … they did want children. And so they decided to figure out a way to escape to the North.

Ellen had already dismissed several of Williams unlikely plans when he finally suggested that Ellen could pretend to be a man, a white man, and William would be her slave.

No – no –Ellen could not imagine how she could pull that off, could not imagine wanting to, could not imagine living as a man, not just a man, but a slave owner. There were too many complications, too many possible pit falls, and the risk, should she be caught, would be too great.

But, William prodded, hadn't people always assumed she was the legitimate child of two white people?

And hadn't she gotten extra beatings just for that?

And didn't she know how to talk like the whites, working in the house?

Maybe – maybe, Ellen said.

William took on extra work, earned extra money, and piece by piece purchased the tools she would need.

Ellen and William got four days off for Christmas.

And early on the morning of December 21, before anyone else was awake, Ellen began to transform: 

First William cut off her hair.

To hide her smooth cheeks, Ellen tied on a toothache bandage.

William wrapped her right arm in a sling filled with medicine faking arthritis because she had never learned to write - so when she had to sign for her tickets, she could reasonably say she was unable to do so.

She pulled on her pants.

William slipped a suit coat over her shoulders.

And with the top hat and green gentleman's glasses of the time, this woman, considered her
father's prettiest daughter, became a man, a frail bespectacled deaf man with a toothache and a very, very attentive slave.

William got Ellen, now going by the name of Mr. Johnson, settled in her car, then took his place in the "Negro" car. They were careful to not look out the windows, to not, in their curiosity, reveal their own faces, and be recognized. For here, in their home town, the danger was greatest.

First, the worst possible thing happened. William's boss came to the station, suspicious. William could hear him urging the ticket agent to search the train.William slouched further and pulled his hat over his eyes and just when the cabinet maker looked through his window, the whistle blew and the train chugged forward.

Then the other worst possible thing happened. The man who sat next to Ellen was the neighbor, Mr. Cray. And he turned to her and said, "It is a fine morning, sir."
She did not know what to say.
Why was he talking to her?
Did he already know?
Had he been sent to find her?
This was just the first step of their plan, would it be foiled so soon?
Ellen did not respond, she didn't know how, she simply stared out the window.
Her heart pounded hard and loud and her hands sweat and she could barely breath.
Mr. Cray spoke louder "It is a very fine morning, sir. It is a very fine morning sir. It is a very fine morning!!!" Until Ellen felt she had to respond, to stop this scene "Yes."
"Sir, I think the gentleman is deaf," a passenger who'd overheard the exchange, intervened.
"Yes, and I shall not trouble him anymore." And Mr. Cray disembarked at the next stop. And with that Ellen knew, with a disorienting sense of irony, that she could pass as a Southern gentle man and she could manage a curve ball.

Ellen had many more close calls. The entire trip, she'd had to listen to the craziest stuff.
A rich woman carrying on about how her stupid slaves wanted to be free and were always running off,and how her stupid husband had given them their freedom on his stupid death bed,but she'd altered the final will:
"I knew he was too good a man to do such an unkind thing, had he been in his right mind, and therefore I had the will altered." she said.
And Ellen who'd stayed out of numerous similar conversations could not refrain,
"Do you mean, madam, that willing the slaves free was unkind to them or costly to you?"
"To the slaves! It seems cruel to turn [epithet for them] loose to shift for themselves, when there are so many good masters to take care of them."
Very carefully, Mr. Ellen Johnson shut her mouth tight, because if the words that were on the tip of her tongue were to actually make it out, all would be lost.

Ellen also had to endure being lectured for treating her slave too kindly.
One Army general demonstrated the way she should really talk to her slave.
No “please.” No “thank you.” But a string of expletives -- here let me show you-- that would keep him in line.

And she was tortured by several young women who found Mr. Johnson to be adorable, no matter how sickly, and wanted to marry him. Mr. Johnson's only response was the refuge of many a non-talkative traveler: pretend to be asleep.

At Charleston, a major slave market, the couple found that Mr. Johnson would have to sign a form to leave the town with her slave.
"I'm afraid I can't sign." Ellen pointed at her bandaged arm. "You'll have to do it for me."
The official eyed the two suspiciously, "I shan't do it!" he said.
And here was a stand off. Each of them eying the other. The crowd gathering, craning their necks to see what and who was holding up this line. And into the middle of this all stumbled a tipsy Army officer, the very one who'd schooled Ellen on how to speak to her slave. [Slurring] "Oh Mr. Johnson, oh I know this family like the book!"  And he signed for them.

Later, the official apologized to Mr. Johnson saying "They make it a rule to be very strict at Charleston. If they were not very careful, any damned abolitionist might take off a lot of valuable … property."

But in the final stretch, from Baltimore to Philadelphia, William went missing.
Mr. Johnson's bags were unloaded and there she stood, a man, alone at the train station.
And William had not made it.
But by now, Mr. Johnson knew just what to do: Mr. Johnson panicked about his missing, possibly escaped, recalcitrant slave and the crew panicked with him. For if a slave escaped from Baltimore, Baltimore had to pay his owner the going rate.

William was finally found in the baggage area where all the slaves were put during the journey. After four long treacherous days, poor William had fallen asleep and no amount of unloading could have woken him.

One final train ride and then, there they were on Christmas morning, William and Mr. Johnson had finally arrive in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly love.

And in order to be free, Ellen had to dress as a man. As unnatural as it seemed to her, as horrifying the thought, this was what it took. Greater prices have been paid for the freedom to be human, to be as precious as any of god's children, but this was the price for Ellen, to spend four hungry, sleepless, terrifying days as some one else, as her exact opposite, a white slave-owning man. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Imagination and Integrity

I typically don’t step in to the fray of current events here. There’s too much unknown, the landscape is too fluid and I hate to pitch my tent and then have the sands of what we know, what we can know, and how well we can know it shift and bury me. But this whole Rachel Dolezal thing is huge news here in Spokane. I watched it break quietly, reading the first reports on my Facebook feed Thursday night. I watched as it blossomed floridly all day until it became too tempting to not write about. 

Even with the shifting sands of the day’s news, I think I can solidly say that integrity is important to me. More important than any skin color. Honesty is hard and often requires vigilance and courage in the face of what we want and what people want from us.  I know we all fudge a little here and there. We try to keep a long story short, or we want to tell one part of the story but keep the other parts private.  And we all deceive ourselves. Maybe we accidentally twisted the story because we need the other person to be a villain or we really wanted what we wanted and only if we told ourselves that story in that way could we justify it. We are all currently deceiving ourselves in some way, even now, even as I type, trying so hard to keep the truth carved as close to the bone as possible. I fear this truth: that we lie to ourselves. I hate it. It’s a natural part of being human. But to say that we all lie to ourselves and therefore lying is okay, that’s where I disagree. And I have a really big problem with it when it all turns in to a colossal lie and intentional deception. At that point, I don’t feel the same softness for our human-ness as I do when it’s accidental. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. I have no idea where Rachel falls in this continuum of truth, but I do know that I have no time or energy for overt lies and the people who tell them. 

Here's my confession: I once passed as a Christian to take a room in a house very near the University. I didn’t lie. They knew my dad was a pastor and offered me the room based on my father’s occupation alone. I was new to town and I really needed a place to live so I did not correct them.

Here's where I stand up: When I had long dark hair, I often wore it in two braids. I thought it was cute and conveniently kept my hair from blowing in my face. When my hair was worn like this, and only when my hair was worn like this, people, always white people, (but obviously not ALL white people, Ha! That’d be just under 1 billion people. I imagine they would all stand in line and I would go from cradle to grave handling just that one question), would often ask me if I was Native American.

I grew up in the parsonages of Marietta Community Church, a stone’s throw from the town-ette of Marietta, on the lip of the Lummi Reservation. I had Lummi friends. I occasionally attended Lummi functions. But I’ve always found the wherewithal within me to chuckle and say to the inquiring minds, “Nope. I’m actually of Dutch heritage. It’s just the braids; they trick people every time.” I feel now I should specify that I am Dutch, except for 1/32 German, by about 10 feet across the border. But I’ve often said I was all Dutch. I’m sorry. It’s just seemed shorter than saying I was 31/32 Dutch and 1/32 German. And nobody seemed to care anyway.

I can see the temptation of saying I was Native American. I could easily get away with it and get all that exotic credit without the bother of being constantly hassled by stereotypes and racism, both overt cruelty and well-meaning pity.

I worked and attended college with my friend Denise, a black woman who grew up in Anchorage. We worked at the Farmer’s markets around Seattle, manning the Italian, rustic-bread booth together. Our liberal, open-minded customers often chatted her up while ignoring me. The farmer’s market demographic adored her, flirted with her, gave her gifts and invitations, loved her. I suspected it's because my white skin was so cliche, but I didn't say anything until she did. Then when they would leave, we would burst out laughing at them. “I’m so exotic!” She would tease and flaunt her exciting looking hair, maybe in braids or an afro.

She was a math major, a declared math major. She hated math, she told me, but as long as she kept one such class on her schedule, she could go to college as long as she wanted on fat scholarships. “Oh yeah. Black woman math major? Cha-ching! Donors go crazy for that shit.”

She wasn't the only one I knew doing it that way. An Asian friend always claimed to want to be a doctor on her scholarship applications. What kind of doctor? "Oh God no. I don't want to be a doctor at all. I just want my college paid for!"

Meanwhile, I choked along, putting myself through community college, working up to 40 hours a week while taking a full load. I transferred to a state university. I rode a city bus to school 1 ½ hours one way. I had no financial help from my family. I looked for scholarships for white girls studying liberal arts. I could not find any. I understand I have white privilege, just at times I wished it came with money.

I've read that Rachel attended a black college on full scholarships, the assumption being that she was black.

One black man I once had a crush on wouldn’t give me a second glance. I got to know his white friend and we had babies and got married. We hung out with this black man and his new girlfriend and after dinner one night, discussions commenced regarding my time living in Mexico, working as a sales clerk. “Wait! What?! You lived in Mexico? Where else have you been?” After more discussion, and a longish list, he said, “Oh man! I thought you’d just rolled out of the suburbs when I met you! Oh man!”

His white, wispy little girlfriend smiled knowingly at me, “I bet you get that all the time. I bet you’re sick of it!”
“You get that too?”
“Oh yeah.”

My roommate in that Christian house had a Native friend. My roommate coveted invitations to Native events and often talked of Native ideals. Her friend found it necessary to break the news that no matter how hard she tried, my roommate would never ever be Native American and to try to keep that in perspective. Another friend is part Native American and has struggled for acceptance by her tribe, a place where she feels more at home than any other. Racial identity is a tricky thing and deception does it no service.

I can see how passing as black or Native would be attractive. We white girls, a sprawling demographic, want in on a tighter community in America, a sisterhood, a clearer identity. And the farmer’s market clientele would have fawned over me. Scholarships might have materialized. If I wanted to do non-profit work, I wouldn’t just be another do-gooder white girl coming in to tell those flailing POC’s how to pick themselves up (a branding I’d heard another white girl get when she tried to get a teaching position at a Native school). In full disclosure, I’m certain I've said some well-meaning but totally stupid bullshit about race and I've heard other freckled white-girls say some pretty strange things too. Some of the stereotypes are based on some real issues. 

If I could pass as black in my liberal circles, I could imagine that my struggles would be respected, made real by my race. It wouldn’t be assumed that I had had an easy, simple, well-funded life. People would look at me and know I’d been through some shit, and that part of the assumption would be true. It would almost be closer to truth to than what they get when they judge me on my skin color and my hair. It’s silly to complain: #whitegirlproblems. I’m not denying my white privilege, but I want to talk about my experiences. Stereotypes cut both ways. 

We could say, hate the game, not the player. But it’s my job to be honest, and your job to not jump to conclusions, to not stereo-type me, dismiss me, or anyone else. I certainly don’t imagine we fresh-faced and enthusiastic white girls are oppressed enough to justify the sort of deception all available evidence points to being perpetrated by Rachel Dolezal. This whole thing is mind blowing, strange, and yet understandable, pitiable. It’s hard to get traction as just another flacid-haired white girl, especially in liberal circles already awash in such mundane complexions in this region. But I’m not 100% sure that her act is even that well-reasoned. I’m also aware of the possibility that her parents have an ax to grind, yet that doesn't mean she's telling the truth.


Related Posts with Thumbnails