Event – Detail

Noon Talk
February 10 at 12:00 PM
The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown
Martha Cutter

On March 23, 1849, Henry Brown climbed into a large wooden postal crate and was mailed from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Box Brown,” as he came to be known after this astounding feat, went on to carve out a career as an abolitionist speaker, actor, magician, hypnotist, and even faith healer, traveling the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada until his death in 1897.

The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown is the first book to show how subversive performances were woven into Brown’s entire life, from his early days practicing magic in Virginia while enslaved, to his last shows in Canada and England in the 1890s. It recovers forgotten elements of Brown’s history to illustrate the ways he made himself a spectacle on abolitionist lecture circuits via outlandish performances, and then fell off these circuits and went on to reinvent himself again and again. Brown’s stunts included creating a moving panoramic picture show about his escape; parading through the streets dressed as a “Savage Indian” or “African Prince”; convincing hypnotized individuals that they were sheep who would gobble down raw cabbage; performing magic, dark séances, and ventriloquism; and even climbing back into his “original” box to jump out of it on stage.

In this study, Martha J. Cutter analyzes contemporary resurrections of Brown’s persona by leading poets, writers, and visual artists. Both in Brown’s time and in ours, stories were created, invented, and embellished about Brown, continuing to recreate his intriguing, albeit fragmentary and elusive, story. The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown fosters a new understanding not only of Brown’s life but of modern Black performance art that provocatively dramatizes the unfinished work of African American freedom.

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Martha J. Cutter is a professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of four books: Unruly Tongue: Language and Identity in American Women’s Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), The Illustrated Slave: Empathy, Graphic Narrative, and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800-1852 (University of Georgia Press, 2017), and The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). She is also the coeditor (with Cathy J. Schlund-Vials) of a collection of essays on multi-ethnic graphic narrative titled Redrawing the Historical Past: History, Memory, and Multiethnic Graphic Novels (2018, the University of Georgia Press). She has published more than forty articles or book
chapters on women writers, American multi-ethnic literature, African American literature, abolition, and racial passing. She has received numerous awards, including the College English Association’s award for the best book in Literary Theory/Criticism in 2000, a University of Connecticut Humanities Grant for work on The Illustrated Slave in 2015, a Provost’s fellowship from the University of Connecticut in 2007, and the CELJ (Council of Editors of Learned Journals) Award for the Best Journal in North American Studies, for MELUS, in 2010. Most recently, she was awarded an NEH academic year fellowship from 2019-2020.

 

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