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Embodied AvatarsGenealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance$
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Uri McMillan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781479802111

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479802111.001.0001

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Passing Performances

Passing Performances

Ellen Craft’s Fugitive Selves

Chapter:
(p.65) 2 Passing Performances
Source:
Embodied Avatars
Author(s):

Uri McMillan

Publisher:
NYU Press
DOI:10.18574/nyu/9781479802111.003.0002

This chapter continues reinterpreting otherwise banal nineteenth-century behaviors and fierce acts of bravery as forms of black performance art in by shifting to an examination of fugitive slave Ellen Craft’s passing performances; her radical actions succeeded in eventually freeing Craft and her husband William from chattel slavery in rural Georgia, and eventually transforming them into veteran performers in the United States and British Isles. The chapter lays bare the sundry sartorial and synthetic props of Craft’s handicapped white male avatar, “Mr. William Johnson.” It aims to reveal how Craft’s aforementioned prosthetic performances—fusing clothing-based items to faux acts of disability—succeeded in eliciting sympathy (and prompting action) from unbeknownst white spectators. This chapter also briefly turns to Craft’s cousins, Frank and Mary, to emphasize their shared use of performance-based methods in their equally perilous collaborative escape. The chapter, then, travels across the Atlantic Ocean as it moves from Craft’s improvised escape acts to her otherwise banal peregrinations at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and her staging of her white mulatta body as a disruptive agent. Finally, the chapter ends with a discussion of the engraving of Craft in her partial escape costume that appeared in the London Illustrated News the same year (and later as the frontispiece to Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom), urging a reading of this engraving as a unique depiction, neither of her nor of her white male avatar, but rather both simultaneously.

Keywords:   fugitive performance art, slavery, escape, prosthetics, Great Exhibition, Disability, engraving, photography

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