on the shelf
The Slave Husband’s Master’s Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom
Written by Eleon Wu
Simon & Schuster: 416 pages, $30
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Frederick Douglass It has been a household name for more than 170 years. Harriet Tubman has uncompromising courage Headed to honors On a $20 bill. Sojourner Truth She is emblematic of her work as an abolitionist and feminist.
But beyond this trio of revered figures, the list of formerly enslaved black people whose stories are told today is very small. Saving Hollywood Solomon Northup (“12 Years a Slave”) and Joseph Senko (“Amistad”) from relative oblivion. And now Elyon Wu sheds light on the saga of Ellen and William Craft in her engaging book, “A master’s wife is a slave’s husband. “
Eileen, whose father was a stripper, was white enough to pass, but as a woman she could not have easily traveled alone in 1848. So this skilled seamstress created a costume that enabled her to appear as a wealthy but sickly young man who needed the constant care of his slave – William. Far from their farms, this imagination enabled the crafts to travel more than 1,000 miles over land and water from Georgia to the North. But instead of settling down in the quiet of freedom, they became nationally famous abolitionists, even like Fugitive Slave Law 1850 put a target on their backs.
Imani BerryProfessor at Princeton University and author of Personal History.South to AmericaIt’s important, he says, that Americans learn to think beyond Douglas, Tubman, and the truth. “The more stories of successful emancipation we have, the more complex our picture of American history,” she says. Abolitionists at great risk is a very important one, as the idea of interdependent fate emerges.”
This dramatic episode is not entirely lost. Characters told a lot of it themselves on Diary, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom”, there were academic works and even a children’s book. But Woo’s version, while meticulously researched, aims to make their journey accessible to a wider audience.
“Their story has long been cherished and studied in academia,” says Wu, who first read his book at Columbia University Graduate School. “But I felt like there were a lot of things they couldn’t or couldn’t say, and I wanted to know.”
In a video interview from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wu, who calls herself a “recovering academic,” said she has consciously taken a broader approach. “I wanted to write a book that my parents could read and get something out of.”
Woo initially struggled to find the balance between accuracy and accessibility. “I usually struggle with myself,” she recalls, “but I was satisfied with what I had written and sent this part to my editor.” Time passes and I start to worry. Then she sends me a six-page document that starts with something like, ‘You’ve obviously done an enormous amount of research.'”
The verdict was that the research was overburdening the narrative. “I had to start from scratch and let the story lead,” she says. I read a lot of novels to see how the story was told. It’s not like you’re reading a Coulson Whitehead bookUnderground railway“And it started by describing how the railway works. You follow the characters and then you get to know their world through osmosis, which is what I wanted.”
Perry considers the effort a success: “She’s a very diligent researcher, finding all sorts of materials, but also weaving really attractive threads.”
This discrimination resonates with Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, the writer and activist who was jailed for registering black voters before she became a Freedom Rider and joined the March on Washington. Preacly attributes some of her passion for the cause to the crafts, who were her great-great-grandparents.
“My mother taught me and my brother about them,” she says, adding that much of black history was only passed down from word of mouth because literacy was illegal for slaves. “The cool thing about what Elyon has done is that she has created a visceral experience. It’s not dry [academic] book. It’s not a novel, but it’s like a novel.”
(Preacely has also been advising on a feature film about crafts that is not connected to the book; a second craft project may be in development, Wu says.)
The author has a theory as to why this particular story was overlooked; Wu says it “resists closure and an easy end, and implicates the entire nation.” While Crafts had allies in Philadelphia and Boston who were willing to risk everything for them, there were many Northerners “invested in this criminal system committed to returning Crafts to slavery.”
This includes legendary statesmen like Daniel Webster, whose desire to preserve the Union at all costs led him to promote the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850, and essentially argue, as Waugh notes, that there were very good people on both sides.
Woo also zooms in to give us a sense of the era’s America, starting in 1848, the year democratic revolutions broke out abroad while a slave owner (James Polk) occupied the White House. She strives not to judge anyone, be it Webster or Robert Collins, Elaine’s owner’s husband (and half-sister). But her full profiles of supporting players are reserved for members of various factions of the abolitionist movement, black and white—including William Steele, William Wells Brown, and Robert Purvis.
“It’s tempting to focus on individual heroes, but they exist in a community and that’s what I wanted to evoke,” Wu said, holding up the book to show that it begins with images of “this multi-ethnic army of people fighting alongside crafts.”
It is this broader context, says Perry, that makes Waugh’s contribution as important as the original Craft’s memoir, providing “a livelier and more complex portrait… that gives us greater grace with our political moment.”
In its scope, “Master Slave Husband Wife” offers the sense that there are far more stories left untold than those we are taught in school. “For every Douglas, Tubman, and Kraft, there are people we don’t know who succeeded or tragedies about people whose escape failed,” Wu says.
But the Craftsman’s story–not just their initial escape but their activism and its aftermath–is particularly compelling as a lesson for a nation still struggling to come to terms with the repercussions of its horrific past. “The story of the letter makes America look cool and terrifying,” says Wu. “It shows us what can happen horribly but also what can happen when we come together.”