Methods of Rebellion
One of the ways in which they resisted was through religion. Slaves held their
own prayer meetings and they transformed a slaveholding religion, a religion
designed to justify and defend the institution, into one that emphasized
deliverance and redemption. Rather than scriptural texts such as, "slaves obey
thy masters," slaves embraced the story of Exodus which told the story of the
deliverance of a people from slavery to freedom.
Slaves also resisted by maintaining family, by struggling to preserve marriages
and blood relations in the face of terrible uncertainty. The slaves maintained
extended kin networks. They preserved taboos against first cousin marriage,
and they stayed connected across different plantations. Douglass recalled that
his mother would travel twelve miles at night after a long day in the fields to
lie down beside her son.
But in slavery, any family was vulnerable. Husbands and brothers stood by
helplessly as wives and sisters were sexually assaulted. Slave owners
separated loved ones from one another and sold them to other parts of the
South. The internal slave trade relocated hundreds of thousands from slavery
in the Upper South to slavery in the Deep South.
The strength of these family ties is indicated by the number of slaves who
after the Civil War sought out one another. One freedman who had watched as
his wife and children were sold away remarried someone after the Civil War, but
then happened to relocate his first wife. He wrote her the following letter.
I would come and see you but I know you could not bear it. I want to see and I
don't want to see you. I love you just as well as I did the last day I saw
you, and it will not do for you and I to meet. I am married, and if you and I
meets it would make a very dissatisfied family. Send me some of the children's
hair in a separate paper with their names on the paper. My dear, you know the
Lord knows both of our hearts. You know it never was our wishes to be
separated from each other, and it never was our fault. I think of you and my
children every day of my life."
The letter writer's literacy was in itself a form of resistance to the
institution. Slaveholders tried to keep slaves from learning to read and
write. Douglass's master chastised his wife for teaching the slaves the
alphabet, saying it would forever unfit him to be a slave. To be a slave was
to be kept ignorant. To be free was to be enlightened. And at night in the
slave quarters, some bondsmen struggled to read knowing that where literacy
went, freedom followed.
Oral traditions also posed a challenge to the omnipotence of slaveholders.
Slaves loved to tell stories, and in those stories they inverted the social
order. In animal trickster tales, for example, the world is reversed. The
weak outsmart the strong. The powerless become empowered. For example, Brer
Rabbit is trapped by a fox and he tells the fox that of all the ways to die, he
is most afraid of being thrown into the briar patch. The fox, unable to
control its sadistic nature, of course complies, and the rabbit cunningly
Slaves also resisted by everyday acts, such as stealing food, breaking tools,
and feigning illness. As Douglass pointed out, these measures contributed to
the racial stereotype of the enslaved as lazy and indolent, but they served as
indispensable strategies of everyday survival.
Sometimes, slaves ran away. They took advantage of their knowledge of the land
to disappear into the swamps and forests for days, even for weeks. Full
communities known as maroons survived for years in isolation. Running away was
usually temporary, and runaways paid for their brief escapes with the lash.
But the time outside the shadow of the planter's house provided needed relief
from the day-to-day brutalities of the institution.
The enslaved also rebelled both individually and collectively. It was an act
of personal rebellion and violence that Douglass placed at the heart of his
narrative. He battled his overseer one day, Mr. Covey, and he told his
audience that "you have seen how a man was made a slave, now you shall see how
a slave was made a man. The bloody fight," he said, "was the turning point in
my career as a slave. It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery
to the heaven of freedom."
Rebellion punctured the myth of the docile, contented slave. In August of 1831
a Virginia slave and self-anointed Baptist preacher named Nat Turner, who had
been separated from his wife and had religious visions of bloodshed, rose up in
armed rebellion in Southampton County. He was yet another manifestation of the
religious impulses of the second Great Awakening. Turner and his followers
murdered some sixty slave owners and their families. The state eventually
captured and executed the rebels, and folk legend had it that Turner's body was
skinned, his flesh fried into grease, his bones ground into dust.
Following Turner's insurrection, slave owners became nervous. They imagined
widespread conspiracies and they blamed Northern abolitionists for fomenting
rebellion in the South. Indeed, both regions imagined dueling conspiracies
against one another. Southerners envisioned an abolitionists' conspiracy to
end slavery, whereas Northerners were convinced that a unified slave power was
conspiring to spread the institution throughout the land.
But Turner didn't rebel because of Northern encouragement, and the widespread
circulation of his confessions, in which he expressed no remorse whatsoever,
did little to ease Southern anxieties. Following the rebellion, "Virginians,"
one paper suggested, "could never again feel safe, never again be happy."
Turner's insurrection led the Virginia legislature to an unprecedented act.
They debated what to do about slavery. "There is a dark and growing evil at
our doors. What is to be done?" asked the Richmond Inquirer. Representatives, largely from the western, non-slaveholding part of the state, called for some form of gradual, compensated emancipation that would remove the black presence from the land.