Crossdressing and Freedom From Slavery by Jelson Mendoza

Freedom from the vile bonds of slavery was the goal for many slaves and in some cases ingenuity and luck gave way to that goal. In the case of the Crafts (both William and Ellen) there was no way they would remain slaves and to Williams credit, his idea would pave the hard road ahead for freedom.

As the case would be, William’s plan was to have his wife, Ellen who “passed” as white with her fair complexion masquerade as a white slaveholder and himself as her slave. This idea quickly brings up how slaves may have viewed “mulatos” or those of mixed race, as being more white and thus less associated with themselves. In reality, mulatos suffered just as much if not more than their fellow slaves and drew scorn from their mistresses who saw them as inferior and somewhat akin to illegitimate children. In another vein, the concept of mixed race people calls into question the whole practice of slavery as those who believed in it scrambled to ascertain that mulattoes were still inferior by virtue of their “blackness” and parentage even if they are white enough to “pass”. Returning to the notion of mistresses, William points out the hypocrisy of many Southern Christian women by saying,

“It is still more surprising to see virtuous ladies looking with patience upon, and remaining indifferent to, the existence of a system that exposes nearly two millions of their own sex in the manner I have mentioned, and that too in a professedly free and Christian country. There is, however, great consolation in knowing that God is just, and will not let the oppressor of the weak, and the spoiler of the virtuous, escape unpunished here and hereafter.”

To that extent, William’s invokes the idea that the system of slavery is so pervasive as to undercut ordinarily virtuous women and make them ignorant to the plight of their fellow women just because of their skin color. Likewise, by invoking damnation Williams connects with other slave narratives in the sense that he must grapple with the existence of a system as morally bankrupt as slavery and uses Christianity as a means of escaping the brutality in some fashion. Just as Christianity was a means for William to mentally give justice to himself and those who suffered as slaves, his plan relied on fraud and a removal of his and his wife’s identities completely, Tocqueville similarly remarked on the status of African Americans during his time in the United States, “The Negro has lost all property in his own person, and he cannot dispose of his existence without committing a sort of fraud.” (Tocqueville 18)


“Ellen Craft in her disguise circa. 1848”


“The title page of the Craft biography, including a quotation that touches on a distinct lack of slavery in England, where the Craft’s would settle for some time before returning to America.

Upon arrival in Liverpool, England and thus freedom from the clutches of any slaveholder in the United States, William remarked,

We raised our thankful hearts to Heaven, and could have knelt down, like the Neapolitan exiles, and kissed the soil; for we felt that from slavery

   “Heaven sure had kept this spot of earth uncurs’d,
      To show how all things were created first.”

  In a few days after we landed, the Rev. Francis Bishop and his lady came and invited us to be their guests; to whose unlimited kindness and watchful care my wife owes, in a great degree, her restoration to health.

In the end, the story of the Craft’s showcases a clear determination for freedom and willingness to do just about anything to be the owner of one’s destiny and present.

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