Saturday, March 17, 2012

Harriet Tubman & Henry Box Brown, Our Great Escape Artists

Illustration of Henry 'Box' Brown emerging from his box

I was reading and then writing about Allison Funk's series of escape artist poems and started wondering: are Harriet Tubman and Henry Box Brown two of our greatest escape artists?  No question, the narratives about their abilities to defy the odds and break free from their confines have fascinated listeners and readers for over a century.

Allison Funk's pieces are persona poems from the perspective of an escape artist. But her poems can also be read as metaphors or allegories for people artfully struggling to break free from various contraptions. In "The Escape Artist Performing the Straightjacket Release," she writes that "slipping out of the jacket / isn't the trick. / It's getting free of what coils around me / daytime and night."  At least one of the ever-present coils confining Tubman and Brown was enslavement.

At some early age, many of heard about Tubman escaping and then returning to lead others out of bondage. In some of the narratives, she was said to have orchestrated several escapes with hundreds of slaves. At other times, she was said to have escaped with thousands.

Tubman was nicknamed the Black Moses, but maybe next time I'm talking to young people about her, I'll experiment with calling her the Black Houdini. Or it's perhaps more accurate to refer to Houdini as the white Tubman.

And speaking of great escape artists, Henry Brown, most widely known as Henry Box Brown had to be one of the most compelling practitioners of the art. In 1849, while living in Virgina, Brown had friends help load him into a box and then had himself shipped along a 27-hour trip by wagon, railroad, and steamboat to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Brown's journey to freedom by box has to be one of the great escapes of all time.

A Notebook on Escape Artists

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