The Runaways is a series of ten lithographs based on nineteenth-century advertisements published by slave owners to locate runaway slaves. Ligon asked friends to write descriptions of him as if they were reporting a missing person to the police. He then rendered the text in typography that mimicked the original ads and paired them with drawings from newspapers and anti-slavery pamphlets of the time. Ligon explained, “‘Runaways is broadly about how an individual’s identity is inextricable from the way one is positioned in the culture, from the ways people see you, from historical and political contexts.”
Ligon was surprised to find that the descriptions his friends wrote were similar to those from the slave ads. Critics have also commented on how the texts read like accounts of criminal suspects, perhaps a critique of racial profiling by law enforcement. The texts from these two lithographs read:
RAN AWAY, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155–165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He’s socially very adept, yet, paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.
RAN AWAY, a man named Glenn, five feet eight inches high, medium-brown skin, black-framed semi-cat-eyed glasses, close-cropped hair. Grey shirt, watch on left hand. Black shorts, black socks and black shoes. Distinguished-looking.