Black Women’s Histories: A Conversation With Barbara McCaskill

Black Women’s Histories, a conversation series, will profile different feminist scholars engaging Black women’s histories and narratives during Black and Women’s History Months (February and March, respectively).

The Black Women’s Histories series continues with a conversation with Barbara McCaskill, associate professor of English at the University of Georgia, and author of the forthcoming Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory, due out May 15, 2015. The story of William and Ellen Craft, a married couple who boldly and innovatively escaped slavery in Macon, Georgia, in 1848, is a passion project that McCaskill had been working on for years. In addition, McCaskill is the co-director of the Civil Rights Digital Library and the “People Not Property” citizen-history project.

This Black History Month, I had a chance to converse with McCaskill, my undergraduate mentor and the person most responsible for my academic development as a Black feminist scholar.

What was it about the Crafts’ story that fascinated you?

I come from a family of Southerners on my mother’s side who are mainly from Georgia, though I don’t know any from Macon where the Crafts are from. Because my parents loved to tell stories, I grew up really feeling Southern culture. This is my way of becoming more closely in touch with that particular identity. For many years, I was reluctant to claim my Southern identity, and I certainly didn’t want to have a Southern drawl! Even though others could still detect it. But I’ve lived now in the South for two decades, and in many ways I’ve come to embrace it. So this project has given me a deeper appreciation of being a Southerner and why, for so many African Americans, the South is very much “home.”

What would you say to those who believe that we need to move beyond slavery or, with the recent revisiting of this period in movies like Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, that we are being bombarded with the subject?

I’ve certainly heard those concerns—from students, from colleagues—who really believe that we need to move beyond slavery. And because slavery was such a heinous, hateful, shameful period, there are many who really believe that we should just “move on!” I also understand the concerns about representations of African Americans in the media. I think the deeper issue, however, is that we don’t have enough representations of African Americans from any historical period, and what we need are more representations of different periods and not just slavery. That being said, I think it is important to revisit and tell stories about enslavement. I don’t think we know enough about how African Americans survived in slavery and the cultures that we developed in slavery. My argument would be that we don’t know enough about slavery, and that is why these kinds of stories are worth revisiting.

How does your project, and the Crafts’ story in particular, contribute to enriching our understanding of slavery?

One of the ideas I’m passionate about is that it’s been easy at one level to ignore or pass over early African American literature because the archive is thin and scattershot, and some of the materials, such as newspapers, are not necessarily available in continuous or complete runs. I think we need to develop models of how to use the materials that we have to tell rich stories. It is a disservice to early African American writers and speakers when we avoid their productions on the premise that there isn’t enough there worth discussing. My argument is: Let’s look at what exists and then develop methodologies to talk about it.

So for me, another reason why I spent so much time circling back to the Crafts again and again, is I really want to answer this challenge and move the field along by giving a model for what we can say based on what we have. I’m very straightforward and direct about this project in the introduction to my book, calling for scholars to continue their story. Because my story is incomplete, and I want those of us in the humanities to value that we all contribute what we can to building the most expansive story of early African Americans that we can. And if we approach the scholarship from that particular vantage point then it becomes more difficult to say that early African American literature doesn’t deserve our full energies because the body of materials isn’t commensurate with that of other periods, or because we think that the archive is too challenging or too difficult to undertake substantive study. But the archive is there, and the archives are also being digitized for wider access and scrutiny.

Having done that research, what can we learn about the Crafts?

It’s important to understand early African Americans like the Crafts by affirming them as fully human, as both flawed and heroic, in the same way that we affirm the complexities of other African American icons, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, as they were portrayed in the magnificent film Selma by Ava DuVernay. Another important takeaway is how collaborative the antislavery community was in the development and dissemination of African American stories like the Crafts’, relying not just on the interactions between Black and white communities but also between British and American communities. Even with all this research, one question I can’t answer is how exactly the Crafts did manage to conceal and prepare for their escape.

The story is well told—Ellen disguising herself as an invalid slaveholder, with William accompanying her. And they needed money. They traveled by train and stayed in hotel rooms. But where did they get their money from? And how did they know where to go? I could speculate. William had some mobility as a carpenter, and Ellen was a lady’s maid. They had interactions and may have gleaned information from abolitionists. Still, how did they know to go to Philadelphia and Boston? I can’t answer these questions definitively. I can pose educated hypotheses based on what we know from other fugitives and what we know of the Underground Railroad networks. Even doing this research on the Underground Railroad is a challenge in and of itself because its very power and effectiveness relied on secrecy. Underground Railroad conductors were loath to write their stories down. Some did, as in William Still’s The Underground Railroad, with literally scores of stories of fugitive slaves. So we can use those stories to pattern the story of William and Ellen Craft.

While this project contributes to American history, and African American history, how does it contribute to feminist scholarship?

This book doesn’t focus on Ellen Craft exclusively. My focus is on her collaboration with William, and their partnerships with other individuals and groups. Having said that, I think that this theme makes the Crafts’ story a Black feminist story. I’m teaching a class on Black feminist literature this semester, and one of the dominant themes of this literature is that of community and of developing a mindset that accommodates the interests and goals and the aspirations of men, women and children. William and Ellen Craft’s activism is an example of that, such as their decision to return to Georgia after Emancipation to develop schools for freed people. I think their motivations were more complex and their writings in public call attention to their dedication to helping their people become productive American citizens in the wake of Emancipation, to become literate and to develop marketable skills based on the South’s agricultural economy.

At the same time, they also needed to generate an income of their own, and returning to the South, they were probably also looking for family. But their central goal was to develop a school. The name of one of their schools, Woodville Cooperative Farm and School, speaks to a Black feminist standpoint. It says to the white Southern public and to the community of Southern African Americans that they, as a couple, have committed their energies to the uplift of their people, to the uplift of families, to the uplift of communities.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.