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Run This Way - 1

A young child - as parents will know - makes no strict distinction between walking and running. They do not - as adults do - compartmentalize them and see walking as the normal, default form of self-locomotion with running reserved for special occasions (proverbially, when you're late, pursuing someone - or being pursued, or doing it as a form of regular exercise or competitive sport).

Image adapted from Wikipedia

Small children constantly change their velocity - compared to the regular speed of an adult, they are often frustratingly slow (executing detours, pausing to examine something, or simply to stop and sulk) or worryingly fast (looping off to suddenly chase something or sprinting ahead, usually in the vicinity of a busy road junction). In both cases they force the adult to adjust to their pace and thus, as it were, become children again, if somewhat against their will.

I was thinking of this while reading Barbara Bodichon's American Diary1, in which the British feminist artist and journalist recorded her tour of the United States in the late 1850s.

It seemed to me that walking and running carry a certain rhetorical emphasis in her text . Early on she remarks that 'slavery makes all labor dishonourable and walking gets to be thought a labour, an exertion'2; in other words it is stigmatized by the privileged elite as something only black - or poor white - people would do.

For this reason then, at least in the South, her and her husband's fondness for talking walks - and long walks at that - would seem to carry a political charge, as if they were a form of discreet abolitionism. References to their walks appear frequently, although they gather added momentum in New England, starting with a 'lovely walk with Mr [Theodore Dwight] Weld' - compiler of the influential American Slavery As It Is (1839) - in New Jersey,3 a walk that becomes a distinctly abolitionist one in that it leads them to the grave of James G Birney.4

So much for walking. Running, though, has rather different associations. A Southern woman she meets tells her, 'If you teach them [slaves] to read they will run away'.5 And the image of the runaway slave recurs at several points in the diary, a figure to which Bodichon is drawn. Indeed at one point she writes, 'I hope to paint a picture of a runaway slave in these woods'.6

Running, you might think, is a dynamic contrast to the rather muted activity of walking. A suitable figure for immediate rather than gradual emancipation, perhaps, or an emblem of the black radical rather than the white abolitionist. And yet Bodichon's sentimental eclipsing of the slave's feelings by her own - to paint a runaway would seem to presuppose capturing him or her stalled in flight, perhaps even hiding from pursuers not far behind - allows even less agency to the runner than her Southern companion, who does at least, if somewhat ruefully, allow that they might actually get away. This would also seem to be the view of Marcus Wood, whose survey of 19th-century visual representations of the male runaway concludes:
In its literalisation of the concept of 'run-away' it is a negation of the slave's most radical anti-slavery gesture. The slave does not guilefully depart under shade of night, but stands out bold and supid on the bleak white background of the printed page. He does not steam on a boat .... or travel ... by train, or ride... on a horse. Comic, trivial, pathetic, and always the same, with his bundle of goods and one foot eternally raised, he proclaims his inadequacy for the task he has set himself. The very engraved lines which make up the the slave are running round in circles, running everywhere and nowhere. One arm and the legs form triangles | thrusting forward; the stick, bundle and other arm form another set of triangles hanging back. The net result is that the head - poised, straining, perfectly still - is itself a motionless O.7
If the antebellum South coded walking as a form of undignified labour, then running was an expression of cowardice. In Honor and Slavery (1996), Kenneth Greenberg argued that the 'man of honour' was expected to betray no fear of death and to be willing to be killed rather than lose face. And so if challenged to a duel he would confront his adversary rather than make himself scarce.8 What is interesting is that despite, for instance, Austin Steward's loud condemnation of the 'inhuman practice' of duelling and its 'barbarous code of honor' in Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857), these values were espoused even by slaves themselves, however much they sought to distance themselves from them as adults once they had reinvented themselves as bourgeois Northerners.9

Steward himself relates the story of a fugitive slave, Doctor Davis, kidnapped on a boat bound for Buffalo. 'Give me liberty or death! Or death!' he repeated, with a shudder' before cutting his own throat with a razor.10 This motto - of Virginia patriot Patrick Henry11 - is quoted by both Douglass and Jacobs in the course of narrating their first escape attempts.12 Related to this are the episodes which permit the writer to express their admiration for a courageous - if ultimately suicidal - defiance of a fellow-slave, such as Big Harry and Ben in the narratives of James Williams and John Thompson.13

Thompson proclaims his own allegiance to this code when he refuses to flee from the company of a 'pretty young lady' as a band of patrollers catches up with him on a forbidden visit to a neighbouring plantation. He explains that 'no person is allowed to possess gentlemanly bravery and valor at the South who will run from the face of any man, or will not even courageously look death in the face, with all its terrors.'14 Similar considerations inform Josiah Henson's and William Parker's choice of the right time to escape. Parker finds that when an opportunity presents itself, he finds he 'did not like to go without first having a difficulty' with his master. 'Much as I disliked my condition, I was ignorant enough to think that something besides the fact that I was a slave was necessary to exonerate me from blame in running away.'15 Henson, notoriously, delays his departure many years, a 'sentiment of honor' preventing him from succumbing to the temptation of absconding as he escorts eighteen slaves across the free state of Ohio from Maryland to his master's brother's plantation in Kentucky; only much later, when he finds that neither his new master, nor his family, seem to be 'under any, the slightest, obligation' to him for saving his life, does he feel 'absolved' of his obligation to them, and determines to make his escape to Canada.16

The episode that comes closest to a duel is probably Douglass' celebrated fight with Edward Covey, after which the 'tyrant' never again laid on me the weight of his finger in anger.'17 Again, its significance is that it allows Douglass to condemn Covey as a 'coward', and to represent himself as one no longer; a slave now only in name, his 'spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence.'18 When he does escape, it can no longer be understood as running away; rather it is simply the taking possession of a freedom he has already won in a fair contest.

[To be continued.]


1. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, An American Diary 1857-8, edited from the manuscript by Joseph W Reed, Jr (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

2. Ibid., p56.

3. Ibid., p142.

4. Ibid., p143. For further references to walks and walking, see pp67, 96-7, 111, 115, 122, 124, 135, 145, 146, 147, 152, 154, 160.

5. Ibid., p62.

6. Ibid., p77.

7. Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp93-4.

8. Kenneth S Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19960, esp. Chapter Four, 'Death.'

9. Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857), pp67, 47.

10. Ibid., p143.

11. In a speech to the Virginia Convention 1775. See William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), p123.

12. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] with a new introduction by Philip S Foner (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 284; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p99.

13. James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), pp53-59; John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and his Providential Escape [1856] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p427.

14. John Thompson, op. cit., p444.

15. William Parker, The Freedman's Story [1866] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p751. The 'ignorant' here is the Northern adult chastising the Southern child.

16. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada [1849] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 1: 1770-1847. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), pp734, 743-44.

17. Douglass, op. cit., p246.

18. Ibid., p247.

created by Alasdair Pettinger Sun 21 Nov 2010 12:52 GMT+0000
Blog > Run This Way - 1