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Paula Giddings, “Resistance”

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


Paula Giddings

from Chapter Two, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. 1996 edition; first published 1984. [PDF]

In its infancy, slavery was particularly harsh. Physical abuse, dismemberment, and torture were common to an institution that was far from peculiar to its victims. Partly as a result, in the eighteenth century, slave masters did not underestimate the will of their slaves to rebel, even their female slaves. Black women proved especially adept at poisoning their masters, a skill undoubtedly imported from Africa. Incendiarism was another favorite method; it required neither brute physical strength nor direct confrontation. But Black women used every means available to resist slavery—as men did—and if caught were punished as harshly.

In 1681 a slave named Maria and two male companions were tried for attempting to burn down the home of their master in Massachusetts. One of the men was banished from the colony; the other was hanged. In the judgment of the Puritan court however, Maria’s crime was more serious than mere arson. The court found that “she did not have the feare of God before her eyes” and that her action was “instigated by the devil.”[15] Whether Maria feared God or not is open to speculation, but it is not difficult to imagine the look in that woman’s eyes. Maria was burned at the stake, and perhaps as an afterthought the lifeless body of her companion was thrown in to burn with her ashes.

In 1708 a woman was among a small band of slaves who killed seven Whites in Newton, Long Island. Four of the slaves were executed; the men were hanged, the woman burned at the stake.

In 1712, New York City (where the first non-Indian women were Black) was gripped in the panic of a slave revolt. Twenty-three slaves, men and women, had armed themselves with guns and knives and gathered to set fire to a slaveholder’s house. They were ultimately subdued, but not before nine Whites had been killed and six injured. Among those arrested was a slave woman, visibly pregnant.

In 1732 the discovery of a slave plot in Louisiana resulted in the hanging of a Black woman and the “breaking on the wheel” of four of her male conspirators. Their heads were stuck onto poles at each end of New Orleans as a warning to others.

In 1741, a slave named Kate and a Black boatswain were convicted of trying to burn down the entire community of Charlestown, Massachusetts. Like Maria, Kate was singled out for having a “malicious and evil intent.” (The devil, it seems, was very busy in Massachusetts.)

In 1766 a slave woman in Maryland was executed for setting fire to her master’s home, tobacco house, and outhouse, burning them all to the ground. The prosecutor in the case noted that there had been two other houses full of tobacco burnt “in the country this winter.”[16]

Few attempted revolts struck more fear into the hearts of slaveholders than the one led by Nancy Prosser and her husband, Gabriel, in Virginia, when one thousand slaves met outside of Richmond in 1800 and marched on the city. Though they were routed by the militia, the specter lingered of thousands of slaves—estimated at two thousand to fifty thousand in number—primed for rebellion.

Black women resisted slavery in other ways as well. During the Revolutionary War period for example, the issue of slavery was raised anew as the contradictions sharpened between enslavement of Blacks on the one hand and the colonists’ struggle for independence on the other. In this era, slaves like Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman (an eighteenth-century relative of W.E.B. Du Bois) of Massachusetts successfully sued for their freedom on the grounds that the Bill of Rights applied to them as “persons.” Freeman’s case, heard in 1781, established the legal fact that “a Bill of Rights, in Massachusetts at least, had indeed abolished slavery.”[17] The success of Slew and Freeman, among others, largely reflected the fact that the late eighteenth century was a fluid period for Blacks. The underlying philosophy of the war was one reason; the need for Black soldiers to fight it was another. In the beginning, the American commanders were loath to arm Blacks or permit them to fight. However, the need for additional manpower, and the fact that the English Loyalist forces not only welcomed Blacks but promised them freedom for their efforts, made the Americans respond in kind.

An intriguing footnote to this history is that at the height of the war, George Washington invited a Black slave to confer with him at his headquarters. The slave was Phillis Wheatley, a poet who had published a volume of verse and thus become the first Black and the second woman in America to do so. What the country’s most famous slaveholder and the country’s most famous slave discussed during the half-hour meeting is open to speculation. However, only days later, George Washington issued an order to conscript Blacks into the Continental Army.

The role of Blacks in the Revolutionary War, the discontent of a White working class forced to compete with slave labor, and the infeasibility of slavery at a time of increasing industrialization hastened its abolition in the North by 1830. At the same time, however, slavery became more viable in the South with the invention of the cotton gin and the demands for cotton to feed England’s nascent industrial revolution. But after 1830 there were new challenges hurled at the South. The increased number of freedmen and women—there were 100,000 in the South alone by 1810—and the rise of the new abolitionists bent on total and uncompensated abolition, demanded a new southern strategy, one that would suppress the potential for slave revolts such as the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. And the institution did indeed change.

After 1830 slavery became “domesticated,” according to historian Willie Lee Rose. It became “a domestic institution which came to mean slavery idealized, slavery translated into a fundamental and idealized institution, the family.”[18] Especially among the wealthier planters, this meant that slave masters adopted a new ethic, and a new image. No longer the cruel and sadistic abusers who kept slaves in submission by beating them half to death, they became “benign,” if stern, patriarchs who lorded over their Black “brood.” The stick was replaced by the carrot. Masters provided protection, physical necessities, and minimum brutality in return for slave obedience and loyalty. This practice was even reflected in the new Slave Codes, which required that slaves be decently provided for, while prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

If the social contract was upheld on both sides, then the slave master and his slaves ideally functioned like an extended “family.”

Thus prevailed the resplendent myth of the Big House with the wily mammy, and house slaves—some of whom may have been the master’s own progeny. Thus the tranquil picture of the field couples in their cabin surrounded by grinning pickaninnies; of “aunties” and “uncles” with eyes lidded by years of obedience. And what better authority figure than the paternalistic slave master, aristocratic in bearing, bragging that his slaves were better treated than the working classes of Europe? And of course there was the mistress, patronizingly tolerant, and as loyal to Mammy as Mammy was to her.

However operative all this was in practice, the ideal of a Victorian domestic institution had a tremendous effect on slaves and on women. Although the slaves may have been physically better off than before, the psychological effects of the new slavery were potentially devastating. Along with the “benefit” of obedience came the no-holds-barred response to disobedience. The double-sided coin “caused abolitionists to assert that slavery was becoming harsher with each passing year, and enabled southern apologists to state, with equal confidence, that slavery was becoming milder,” notes Willie Lee Rose. She continues:

In fact both sides were right, and both sides were wrong. As physical conditions improved, the slave’s essential humanity was being recognized. But new laws restricting chattels’ movement and eliminating their education indicate blacks were categorized as a special and different kind of humanity, as lesser humans in a dependency assumed to be perpetual. In earlier, harsher times, they had been seen as luckless, unfortunate barbarians. Now they were to be treated as children never expected to grow up.19

The emphasis on family was another dimension of the new slavery. Unlike the slavocracies of South America and the Caribbean, Southerners encouraged organic family units among their slaves. In other countries there were disproportionate numbers of male slaves, illustrating the tendency of those countries primarily to import males to work the plantations. In contrast, by 1840 the ratio of Black men to women in the United States was almost equal. This factor had a number of consequences: Family relationships among American slaves both discouraged rebellion and runaways, and encouraged a self-sustaining reproduction of the labor force.

The Victorian family ideal also carried a specific consequence for women. White southern women found themselves enmeshed in an interracial web in which wives, children, and slaves were all expected to obey the patriarchal head of the household, as historian Anne Firor Scott observed. The compliance of White women became inextricably linked to that of the slaves. For, it was believed, “any tendency of one member of the system to assert themselves against the master threatened the whole.”[20] As it was often asserted by slavery apologists, any change in the role of women or Blacks would contribute to the downfall not only of slavery, but of the family and society as well. Little wonder that the English-born feminist Margaret Fuller held that “There exists in the mind of men a tone of feeling toward women as toward slaves.” [21] Little wonder that the earliest White American feminists, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, had been reared in a wealthy slaveholding family. And little wonder, too, that southern women, as a group, were the most reluctant to assert a feminist sensibility.

The Victorian “extended” family also put the “moral” categories of women into sharp relief. The White wife was hoisted on a pedestal so high that she was beyond the sensual reach of her own husband. Black women were consigned to the other end of the scale, as mistresses, whores, or breeders. Thus, in the nineteenth century, Black women’s resistance to slavery took on an added dimension. With the diminution of overt rebellion, their resistance became more covert or internalized. The focus of the struggle was no longer against the notion that they were less human, as in Elizabeth Freeman’s time, but that they were different kinds of humans. For women this meant spurning their morally inferior roles of mistress, whore, and breeder—though under the “new” slavery they were “rewarded” for acquiescing in them. It was the factor of reward that made this resistance a fundamentally feminist one, for at its base was a rejection of the notion that they were the master’s property. So Black women had a double challenge under the new slavery: They had to resist the property relation (which was different in form, if not in nature, to that of White women) and they had to inculcate the same values into succeeding generations.

The narrative of Linda Brent, a South Carolina slave, revealed her struggle against the exchange of sexual favors for material reward. Brent’s master, Dr. Flint, didn’t try to “rape” Brent by physically overpowering her; he endeavored to make the young slave submit to his will. From the age of fifteen, Flint tried “to people my young mind with unclean images,” Brent wrote. [22] He began telling the young girl that she was his property and “must be subject to his will in all things.”[23] According to Brent, her master seemed to become obsessed with her “voluntary” submission. He “met me at every turn,” she said, “swearing…he could compel me to submit to him.”[24]

Finally he offered her a cabin on the edge of the plantation if she would accede to his demands. Brent resisted, however, and escaped to the North. Even then, Flint continued to pursue her until a friend purchased her freedom. Although Brent could feel safe for the first time in her adult life, she couldn’t help viewing her “purchase” with mixed emotions. “The more my mind had become enlightened,” she wrote, “the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property; and to pay money to those who had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from my suffering the glory of triumph.”[25]

For a slave like Linda Brent to have developed such a consciousness, it was necessary for some authority figure to have given her a sense of self that contradicted the dictates of the new slavery. In her case it was a grandmother, for as Brent wrote, her hatred of her master stemmed from his attempt to destroy the values her grandmother had “inculcated” in her. Slave narratives are replete with examples of mothers attempting to impart such values to their children, often at the price of great emotional anguish. The writer of Sojourner Truth’s narrative wrote, for example, that when Truth became a mother, “she would sometimes whip her child when it cried for more bread rather than give it a piece secretly, lest it should learn to take what was not its own.” [26] As Truth explained in the narrative, her action was a means of keeping herself and her child from being compromised by the slave system. “The Lord knows how many times I let my children go hungry, rather than take secretly the bread I liked not to ask for,” she said. [27]

The efforts of slave mothers to instill values in their children had an effect that was not always positive. The need to be exceedingly harsh or enterprising where their children were concerned often created emotional distance between mother and child. A slave by the name of Aunt Sally recalled how stern her mother was, “rarely talking with her children, but training them to the best of her ability in all industry and honesty. Every moment she could gain from labor,” the narrator wrote, “was spent in spinning and knitting and sewing to keep them decently clothed.” [28]

The tension was greater, noted the slave Bethany Veney, when the child was a daughter, whose “almost certain doom is to minister to the unbridled lust of the slaveowner.”[29] When Veney’s daughter was born, she wished that both of them could “die right there and then.”[30] Such a wish is commonly expressed in the slave narratives of women, and a number of the rare but not insignificant instances of infanticide can be seen within this context.

It is not difficult to imagine the anxiety of a mother whose daughter had reached the age of puberty in the slave South. According to the narratives, it was that anxiety that created the greatest friction between mother and daughter. “The mother of a slave is very watchful,” Brent wrote, especially after she reaches puberty. “This leads to many questions, and this wellmeant course has a tendency to drive her from maternal councils.”[31]

In Brent’s case it caused desperate loneliness, which led to an illicit affair with a White man. When Brent’s grandmother discovered Linda’s indiscretion, the recrimination was harsh. “I’d rather see you dead,” her grandmother told her. “You are a disgrace to your dead mother.”[32] The grandmother tore off a wedding ring and silver thimble from Brent’s fingers—keepsakes of her deceased mother—and told Brent never to talk to her again.

In the world of the slave mother, there was little room for compassion, because there was no room for weakness. This was especially true when the mother herself had been compromised. A Northerner who settled in
Mississippi spoke of mothers who were concubines there: “They had too much pride and self-respect to rear their daughters for such a purpose,” he said. “If driven to desperation, she destroyed herself to prevent it, or killed them.”[33]

Slave communities also enforced moral codes. Undiscriminating behavior could get a person run out of church; and in some communities a “loose” woman could be the subject of collective recrimination. One slave, Priscilla McCollough, explained that if a woman wasn’t acting as she should, her neighbors would adopt an African custom and “play the banjo” on her: make her a subject of a public song that warned her that she “betta change.”[34]

Although, as in many African societies, prenuptial intercourse was not necessarily frowned upon, having a baby outside of marriage often was. In spite of the vagaries of the slave system, marriage, fidelity, and an organized family life were important values, combining the ethics of the society, African mores, and resistance to the new slavery.

Perhaps the most dramatic and least known act of resistance was the refusal of slave women to perform their most essential role, producing baby slaves, for which they were rewarded. “Every woman who is pregnant,” observed the plantation mistress Frances Kemble, “is relieved of a certain portion of her work in the field…Certain additions of clothing and an additional weekly ration are bestowed upon the family…. The more frequently she adds to the number of her master’s livestock by bringing new slaves into the world, the more her master’s livestock by bringing new slaves into the world, the more claims she will have upon his consideration and good will.” [35]

Even so, a Texas slave by the name of Rose Williams tried to resist a forcible mating. When her master placed a healthy specimen by the name of Rufus in her cabin for this purpose, she chased him out with a three-foot poker. Subsequent visits by Rufus met with the same response. Rose Williams finally relented when the master threateningly reminded her that he had purchased her entire family to save them from being separated. Rose upheld her end of the desperate bargain and bore Rufus two children.[36]

Some slave women, perhaps a significant number, did not bear offspring for the system at all. They used contraceptives and abortives in an attempt to resist the system, and to gain control over their bodies. In 1860 a Tennessee physician, reading a paper before the Rutherford County Medical Society, talked of the wide use of camphor as a contraceptive: “They take it just before or after menstruation, in quantities sufficient to produce a little nervousness for two or three days; when it has effect they consider themselves safe.”[37]

When contraception failed, slave women took more extreme measures. “All country practitioners are aware of the frequent complaints of planters about the unnatural tendency in the African female population to destroy her offspring,” observed a Georgia physician in 1849. “Whole families of women…fail to have any children.”[38] Another physician, writing in a Nashville, Tennessee, medical journal, told of a planter who kept between four and six slave women “of the proper age to breed,” but in twenty-five years only two children had been born on the plantation. When the slave owner purchased new slaves, every pregnancy miscarried by the fourth month. Finally it was discovered that the women were taking “medicine” supplied by an old slave woman to induce abortions.

At least one slave narrative indicates that the women understood the larger significance of their act. “If all bond women had been of the same mind,” wrote the slave Jane Blake, “how soon the institution could have vanished from the earth.”[39]


15. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England (New York: Atheneum, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1974), p. 154.
16. Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 145.
17. Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution: 1770–1800 (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 216.
18. Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 21.
19. Ibid., pp. 24–25.
20. Ann Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1970), p. 17.
21. Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), p. 33.
22. Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York and London: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 26.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., p. 27.
25. Ibid., p. 205.
26. Olive Gilbert, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (New York: Arno Press, 1968), p. 24.
27. Ibid., p. 38.
28. Aunt Sally, Or the Cross, The Way of Freedom (Cincinnati: American Reform Tract & Book Society, 1858) p. 59.
29. Bethany Veney, The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (Worcester, Mass., 1889), p. 26.
30. Ibid.
31. Brent, op. cit., p. 57.
32. Ibid.
33. Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), p. 393.
34. Ibid., p. 70.
35. Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839 (New York and Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library, 1961), p. 95.
36. Gutman, op. cit., p. 138.
37. Ibid., p. 81.
38. Ibid.
39. Darlene Hines, “Female Slave Resistance: The Economics of Sex,” The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 1979), p. 127.

Categories: histories, race, reproduction

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