Thursday, January 30, 2014

Artfully Cunning Fugitive Slaves & Rap Genius

Yesterday in our Becoming a Rap Genius course, my students and I covered runaway slave ads from newspapers. The ads were submitted by slave owners who were offering rewards for escaped slaves.  The recurring descriptions of the escaped slaves' sly intelligence really caught our interest.

One owner warned described an escapee as "a well made, active, plausible fellow, has a scar by his right eye."  The owner warned that "much care ought to be taken to secure him properly, as few villains excel him in address and cunning."  Another owner wrote of his escaped slave as possessing "a large share of cunning and artfulness, will deceive if he can."

Yet another owner noted that his escaped female slave "walks very brisk, understands and can speak   German; has a soft Voice, and speaks fast, fond of Dress." He concludes that "She is very artful, will probably pass for a free Negro, and, it is thought, will attempt to get to Philadelphia." 

Poet Robert Hayden must have consulted similar sources as he developed his poem "Runagate Runagate," where he channels the perspective of an owner's wanted ad describing two fugitive slaves:
They’ll dart underground when you try to catch them,
plunge into quicksand, whirlpools, mazes,
turn into scorpions when you try to catch them.
For years, in my African American literature classes, we have read black writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Henry Box Brown, studying what they had to say about slavery. So it was a shift in perspective for us to read what the owners were saying about their lost "property."

It's my early sense that reading, annotating, and then discussing the slave ads gave us a way of engaging slavery and struggles for liberation in ways that had been less involved when we just read slave narratives. But I'm going to think on that a little more, as the activity is still fresh. Either way, the next time one of my classes covers the slave narratives, I'll be interested in utilizing Rap Genius for annotations to see how the experience goes.

For now, I was pleased with our conversations about those artful, cunning people, sometimes known as fugitive slaves.

Becoming a Rap Genius: Resources

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