Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South

“…agents and subjects, persons and property, and people who resisted and accommodated…Enslaved people were many things at once, and they were many things at different moments and in various places.”

To begin, a few facts that are new to me as presented in Closer to Freedom:

Enslaved women rarely participated directly in slave rebellions, and were a small proportion of runaways.

Everyday forms of resistance included: short-term flight, from here forth referred to as truancy, theft, foot dragging, and faking illness.

Places, boundaries, and movement were central to the organization and resistance of slavery and women had less mobility than men within these parameters.

The Geography of Containment

“Now I couldn’ go from here across the street…”

The Rule

Excerpt p. 12

“At the heart of the process of enslavement was a spatial impulse to: locate bondpeople in plantation space and to control, indeed, to determine, their movements and activities”

Excerpt p. 15

“More than any other single slave activity–such as trading, learning to read, consuming alcohol, acquiring poisoning techniques, or plotting rebellions–slave movement was limited, monitored, and criminalized.”

The Enforcement

Excerpt p. 13

“By the 19th century, slave holders had laid out, in their statutes and in their plantation journals, a theory of mastery at the center of which was the restriction of slave movement. Passes, tickets, curfews, and roll calls all limited slave mobility.”

“Bondpeople everywhere were forbidden by law and by common practice to leave their owners’ property without a pass, and slave patrols attempted to ensure obedience to the law and to plantation rules.”

Excerpt p. 14

“Virginia’s elite auhorized local authorities who captured outlying runaways to “dismember” and even to “kill and destroy” them.”

“In 1690 permissible punishments for repeat offenders included whipping, burning “some place” in the face, and slitting the nose.”

“In 1712 lawmakers repeated that it was “lawful” to “beat, maim or assault” as well as to kill anyone who “refuse[d] to shew his ticket.”

He or she who criticizes the enslaved woman or man for not running knows not the conditions of their plight or the obstacles in their path.

Gender and Slavery

Excerpt p. 35

“…Like many other bondwomen who, for short periods of time, occasionally ran away from overwork, violence, planter control, and the prying eyes of family and friends.”

“…such women did not intend to make a break for freedom in the North but sought temporary escapes from the oppressive regimes…”

Not a large proportion of runaways, enslaved women were much more likely to be truants, those who participated in temporary short-term flight. These women spent periods of days or several weeks in nearby woods and swamps away from their home plantations.

Excerpt p. 38

“The dangers that all women and men anticipated if they thought about escape to the North were fearsome: dogs, patrols, unknown directions, cold, heat, lack of food, the risk of capture, and in the event, certain horrific punishment.”

Compounding these reasons, womens ties to the family and community as well as their lack of knowlege regarding surrounding geography led to their higher rates of truancy.

Excerpt p. 43

“Not only were bondwomen the victims of male violence, but they also routinely received the back of their mistress’s hand”

“Slaveholding women yanked hair, pulled ears, smacked faces, burned skin, punched bodies, and stabbed at random.”

“Enslaved women were slapped around casually by their male and female owners alike.”

Respect to the black woman!

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” – Malcolm X, 1962

Respect to the black woman who was the recipient of violence from all sides, slaveholding men, slaveholding women, and their enslaved partners.

Truancy

Excerpt p. 46

“…truants spent much of their time simply surviving. Living in woods or swamps, runaways faced extremely difficult conditions”

“Truants were miserable in bad weather.”

“They rummaged in the woods for berries…”

The severe conditions— food scarcity and lack of protection against the elements —faced by truants emphasizes both the harshness of the conditions on their home plantations and their desperation for escape.

“Absentees withstood these hardships for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and sojourns of several months were not unknown.”

…And the punishment:

“Absentees were forced “to work harder” than ever, put on bread and water diets “for a long time,” caned, put in stocks, shackled at their feet with a ball and chain, chained from leg to the neck ( a practice that left one person’s neck “nearly a scab”) confined alone in outbuildings, and jailed.”

“One man had an iron cage with bells on it locked over his head for three months; another received a “decent smoking” in the smokehouse; a few were made to “ware women’s cloths.”

“Quite a few were shot at or shot.”

“One bondman who was captured while visiting his wife was tied to a tree and branded with his owner’s initials “in the fleshy part of [his] loins.”

A reoccurring theme in my slavery focused posts is the sheer brutality of slaveholding society and the incomprehensible pain of the enslaved.

I make this my focus because I can’t understand how people can joke about this era. The only means by which I can justify it is that we don’t truly know the suffering that took place. So I’ve made it my responsibility to highlight it.

The Intoxication of Pleasurable Amusement

“Deep in the woods, away from the slaveholder’s eyes, they held secret parties where they danced, performed music, drank alcohol, and courted.”

Excerpt p. 60

“Musicians played fiddles, tambourines, banjos, and “two sets of [cow] bones for dancers”

What shame is there to be had of a people who created something of nothing.

“Dancin’ wid a glass of water on my head an’ three boys bettin’ on me. Williams often won this contest by dancing the longest while balancing a glass of water on her head without spilling a drop.”

And with nothing we still managed to steal joy.

“…eating, dancing, drinking, and dressing were among the main amusements.”

Excerpt p. 62

“Enslaved people claimed, animated, politicized, personalized, and enjoyed their bodies–flesh that was regarded by much of American society as no more than biddable property. “

Our resistance took various forms.

As the institution attempted to “dwarf the soul and preserve the body,” the very acts of partying, drinking, dancing, and adorning the body, were revolutionary acts. We expressed ourselves and created in opposition to our plight as slaves.

“However ill fed they might have been, here for once, there was plenty. Suffering and toil was forgotten…”

Our ingenuity allowed us a source of escape.

“Enslaved people, then, possessed at least three bodies.”

Excerpt p. 66-68

“The first served as a site of domination; it was the body acted upon by slaveholders.”

“The second body was the subjective experience of this process. It was the body as a vehicle of feelings of terror, humiliation, and pain.”

“…the slave’s third body: a thing to be claimed and enjoyed, a site of pleasure and resistance.”

It is in the third body where we can find pride. Outside rebellion and running away, the mere act of possessing and claiming our third body was an example of our everyday resistance.

Amalgamation Prints Stuck Up In Her Cabin

“They used their homes—a slave cabin and a room in a slave holding house—as places where they could encourage opposition to slavery and teach their children that others, outside the South, agreed.”

Excerpt p. 107

“English abolitionists introduced three major icons into the struggle for emancipation: the wildly popular cameo of a kneeling slave beseeching the reader, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”; the image of a cross section of a slave trading ship showing the “tight packing” of African human cargo; and the representation of violence, including whippings, auctions, runaway hunts, and the separation of families.”

The ability of words to move a people does not eclipse that of images.

“But the visual nature of much abolitionist propaganda overrode slave’s illiteracy, made it accessible to them, and struck slaveholders as one of the most dangerous aspects of antislavery’s work.”

It was not until I understood the mass illiteracy amongst the enslaved population that I understood how important visuals were to effective communication in abolitionism.

To Get Closer to Freedom

“Their liberty built on the unfreedom of others…”

Excerpt p. 127

“The closer enslaved people got to freedom, the further removed some of their owners felt from their own liberty. The freedom of all southern whites had long rested on the enslavement of Africans and Creole blacks.”

How do our identities become wrapped up in the identities of others?

“In short, much of planters selves was centered in their ownership of slaves.”

Excerpt p. 134

“Elite women…freedom and femininity had been fabricated in the projection of agency onto the bodies of their slaves.”

And to how great an extent are we willing to deprive others for our own fulfillment?

One Reply to “Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South”

  1. Wow. What a powerful piece. You can read this and be moved by deep self reflection. How many times do we call each other “my nigga”? How often have we talked about, “if that’s was me I would’ve…”? How often have we said the phrase, “I’m working like a slave”? We have been ‘deprived’ on the context and magnitude. May our ancestors forgive us all and light the path to book, history, travel, spirituality and freedom. May we not disappoint our greats.

    Liked by 1 person

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