Notable slave uprisings such as the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, the Gabriel (1776–1800) plot in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, followed by Denmark Vesey's (1767–1822) conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and Nat Turner's (1800–1831) uprising in Virginia in 1831 all occurred during the period of American slavery. These rebellions, along with other lesser known uprisings, often erroneously serve as the only direct evidence of slave resistance. To be certain, these large-scale rebellions are critical moments in history, however, forms of daily slave resistance also support the notion that slaves hardly acquiesced with their slave conditions. Arguably, moments of day-to-day resistance are equally important to understanding the frustration experienced by slaves as well as discerning how these moments of resistance helped slaves move on from one day to the next.
Survival remained a daily struggle for slaves in America and many turned to religion for solace. As historian John Blassingame notes, "[b]y engaging in religious activities, the slave could, for a while, shift his mind from his hopeless immediate condition to the bright future awaiting him" (1979, p. 147). But slave masters understood the value of religion to slaves and many sought to prevent slaves from worshipping. Former slave Minnie Folkes remembered how slave masters "would come in an'start whippin' an' beaten slaves unmerciful … [a]ll this was done to keep you f'om servin' God" (Perdue 1976, p. 93). She recalled the slave master saying, "Ef I ketch you heah agin servin' God, I'll beat you. You havin' time to serve God. We bought you to serve us" (Perdue 1976, pp. 93-94). Religion offered slaves hope for the future and serenity during their violent present conditions associated with slavery. Spiritual songs by slaves also served as a form of resistance as they contained messages of freedom, self-liberation, and constantly conveyed double meanings.
Some slaves found resistance in the most human emotion of love. Slave masters argued incessantly that slaves constituted property and could not possibly be considered human. Yet numerous cases illustrate the humanistic passions of slaves. To be certain, relationships among slaves seemed complex and difficult to control as the slave masters ostensibly had the final word. But the moments of comfort exchanged by lovers helped ease the pain, at times, from the daily cruelties of slavery. Both sides of the experience are found in the letters of slaves engaged in relationships. Harriet Newby, a former slave, wrote to her slave husband that she received his letter "and it gives much pleasure to here [sic] from you." She continued, "… you cannot imagine how much I want to see you. Come as soon as you can for nothing would give more pleasure than to see you. It is the greatest comfort I have is thinking of the promist time when you will be here." Yet as much pleasure as the promised time could bring, many slaves wanted more than just a stolen moment together. This seemed the case for another former slave name Louisa Alexander who wrote to her slave husband: "I received your letter yesterday, and lost no time in asking Mr. Jim if he would sell me, and what he would take for me." The slave master, however, refused to sell Alexander and explained to her in a threatening way that she "would never get free only at the point of the Baynot" (Holt 2000, p. 253). Arguably the slave masters refusal to sell Alexander did not diminish the love shared between her and her husband.
Just as sincere as slaves appeared to each other, they often relied on a high level of shrewdness in the presence of their slave masters. One Georgia planter carped, "slaves are so deceitful … that as far as my own experience extends I could never in a single instance decipher his character" (Levine 1977, p. 122). Also supporting this thought was a former slave who recalled, "When the white folks would die, the slaves would all stand around and 'tend like they was crying, but after they would get outside, they would say, 'They going on to hell like a damn barrel full of nails'" (Mellon 1988, p. 301). This sense of duplicity often veiled the true sentiments of many slaves. Being able to convince slave masters of their benevolence often afforded amenities such as a pass to visit a loved one on a neighboring plantation, extra food, or perhaps even warrant a more favorable work assignment.
But the slaves' true feelings are discerned in statements such as the following: "I remember once when one of the white folks died, old Uncle Albert keeled over on the floor and was just a-crying, but when he saw nobody was looking, he was just dying a-laughing" (Mellon 1988, p. 302). As a matter of fact, many slaves often resorted to a form of covert resistance on a daily basis as a means of carving out a modicum of free space in a tightly monitored institution. Such actions as spitting in their slave masters food, or breaking equipment to slow down the work pace, and even getting intoxicated in the evening to the point whereby they could not work in the morning all represent forms of resistance as they provided satisfaction for the slaves and created angst for their slave masters. Some slaves even went so far as to poison the food of their slave masters or match violence with violence. What follows is the testimony of one former slave who decided to retaliate. The former slave recalled that his resistance to his slave masters attack "was so entirely unexpected." According to the account, as Mr. Covey and Hughes attempted to tie the slave down, a kick was issued to the ribs of the latter and Hughes released him. Mr. Covey asked the slave if he intended to continue with his aggressive behavior and the slave responded that he did, "come what might; that he used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer" (Holt 2000, p. 210).
In some extreme instances, slaves felt it necessary to resist slavery by taking the life of their children to protect them from the horrors of the institution. Rather than watch their children suffer the irrefutable cruelties of slavery, many opted instead to kill their children and spare them what they believed would be an inevitably painful life. This proved the case for one fugitive slave mother when the slave hunters arrived at the house in which she concealed herself, "she caught a shovel and struck two of her children on the head, and then took a knife and cut the throat of the third, and tried to kill the other." She did not have enough time to kill all her children, however, her actions indicated that she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had. When asked if she acted irrationally, she replied, "[n]o … I was as cool as I now am; and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery, and be murdered piece-meal" (Holt 2000, p. 248). Without a doubt, this narrative speaks to suffering experienced by each slave and their unwillingness to allow their innocent children to fall victim to such suffering.
FORMS OF RESISTANCE
Despite the fact that few slave rebellions got past the planning stage, one should not assume—as historians such as Stanley Elkins have implied—that slaves were docile and accepting of their lot. Slaves resisted their bondage on a day-to-day basis in a number of ways: They broke farm implements; they stole from their masters as well as from other whites; they sabotaged their masters' property; they worked slowly; they feigned illness; and they committed occasional acts of violence. They also committed acts of resistance through song: many songs commonly sung by slaves right in front of their masters were about violence against their oppressors as well as about running away. One of the most common forms of resistance was running away. By running away a slave not just liberated him- or herself but deprived the owner of income, both from the loss of labor as well as from the loss of the value of the slave's own body.
SOURCE: Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
In addition to the individual actions taken on a daily basis against slave masters by their slaves, the establishment of a strong culture helped fortify notions of group solidarity and in turn created a collective solidarity stronger than any one individual. Slaves often rallied around each other especially to protect themselves from the cruel actions and misdeeds of slave masters as well as overseers. The unification among slaves strengthened the tenuous nature of power held by individual slaves. Thus group solidarity served as a critical form of resistance with the system of slavery. According to Blassingame, the most critical component of group identification among slaves "was that slaves were not solely dependent on the white man's cultural frames of reference for their ideals and values" (1979, p. 147). Therefore, Blassingame stated, "[a]s long as the plantation black had cultural norms and ideals, ways of verbalizing aggression and roles in his life largely free from his master's control, he could preserve some personal autonomy, and resist" (1979, p. 147). In essence, the establishment of slave culture augmented a sense of group self-esteem, self-confidence, and fearlessness.
Collectively black slaves developed a shared culture based on resistance. Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), a black abolitionist, faced great criticism from white abolitionists after his 1843 speech before the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo where he reminded and encouraged black slaves to resist with every fiber in their body. Garnet told the slaves that no oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. Moreover, Garnet ostensibly noted the importance of day-to-day resistance as he stated, "[w]hat kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of the expediency." Finally, in his closing he reminded the slaves of their collective solidarity when he said "[b]rethern, adieu! Trust in the living God. Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are three millions" (Finkenbine 2004, p. 69).
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Clayborne, Carson, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary B. Nash, eds. African American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2005.
Finkenbine, Roy E. Sources of the African American Past: Primary Sources in American History. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2004.
Holt, Thomas C., and Elsa Berkley Brown. Major Problems in African American History, Vol. I: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Mellon, James. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.
Perdue, Charles L., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.
T. E. Robinson