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. 


  1. Hi! I came across your blog looking for recipes of Pickle Chiffon Pie. I will NOT be using the recipe used here, smile, but was super happy to read some of your other writing including this excerpt from the one woman play. I hope this does see the light of day and would even trek out from Seattle to see it!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad to hear that you will not be making our version of Pickle Chiffon Pie. I'm also glad to hear that you liked some of my posts. Someday, some day that I can't imagine or see from here, perhaps my show will see a stage. Thanks for the vote of confidence!



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