Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Invalid Master and His Slave Take a Train from Macon to Savannah, 1848

That man’s not white. He’s not even a man.
Beneath green-tinted eyeglasses and head bandages,

worn not because of injury but for disguise,
Ellen Craft plays the master, plays the man,

her chin and cheeks plastered in poultices
to cover up her lack of a young man’s

stubble, her right arm in a sling so no one sees
how she can’t write her name like a gentleman.

Helping her onto the train, William, her serving-man
(one name slaves are called in first-class

railway cars), takes her left elbow, guides
her down the aisle, as if he’s not her man,

as if she is a he, trying to betray no tenderness
as he arranges a blanket around her—as a man,

he hopes, might do for another man, even a man
who owns him, not as a husband who’s not a husband might do for his

wife who’s not a wife. Ellen wears large men’s
leather gloves, a brushed top hat, a baggy topcoat, her whiteness

that’s not whiteness wrapped so it’s not unmanned
by her figure or her indoor house-slave’s hands. She passes

conversations by feigning deafness, sickness,
afraid that she’ll forget she’s “Mister” instead of “woman”—

though she is not a woman,
either, William says, but a chattel for some Missis

if their plan falls through. There’s no snow. It’s nearly Christmas.
They have a four-day pass before any man

suspects they’re gone. What can William say to this woman,
this man, her face blenched as her mistress’s

bleached sheets that he helped tear into the strips
that turned his wife into his bandaged master so well the man

sitting next to her on the train can’t guess
and calls her “sir”? William can’t say, “That man

over there is staring at you.” He can’t say, “You are the bravest man
I ever saw.” He can say, “Yessir, master, yes.”

They’ll get to Philadelphia. She’ll put on a dress,
but abolitionists will have her pose in her man’s

suit of clothes to raise awareness
and more funds. What can a free man

say to a free woman who is still a man?
He’ll say, “I’ve loved you throughout all of this—

Mister, Master, Missis, Miss—
but I loved you most when you became my man."  

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