Collective Rebellions of Enslaved African Americans
Sharon Bingaman, RN
Rebellion when talking about Enslaved African Americans? Absolutely. But let us take a minute to look at the word rebellion.so that we are clear on the meaning. According to Joseph A. Bailey, II, MD, in his book Word Stories of African American Slavery, the word is “derived from Latin –re, “anew” and bellum, “war”-a renewal of war. Rebellion is the subversion of the laws; Revolution is that of Tyrants. In Europe, “stubborn” retained during and after Biblical times the idea of a hard, obstinate attitude—and even that of rebelliousness. Both ideas, and especially those of a firm nature following an evil course, were thought of as beliefs antagonistic to God. Can your Real Self be about rebelling? Perhaps out of injustice. This term denotes any expressed resistance to a recognized authority—perhaps to a well-organized civil revolt against the government or perhaps to a domestic dispute between parents and children. Regardless of the cause, the intent is exactly the same where defiance of authority is involved.” We can also classify rebellion as mild, slight, moderate and extreme.
I am sure that we have all heard the question asked many times-‘Why didn’t the Slaves try to fight back” or “It must not have been too bad or they would have tried to escape.” Well, just because the Truth was kept hidden and we were never taught, doesn’t mean acts of rebellion by the Enslaved didn’t happen. There were rebellions by African Americans taking place on many levels and in many areas of the country. The Enslaved fought back, not only physically but in other ways that showed them as heroes despite living their lives every day under the agony and horrors of the most evil and inhumane systems ever devised by man.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways the Enslaved were able to construct mild, slight, and moderate acts of sabotage in everyday life. They did whatever they could with whatever they had and they were very creative and brave. They knew they could be whipped and tortured severely or killed for their actions The Slave owners were motivated by a desire for money and power and this overruled any other problem that were generated by the slaves.. This was the weak spot the Enslaved targeted, doing anything that would eat into the pocketbooks of the slave owners. The Enslaved would slow the pace of their work down-not so much that it was too obvious or they would get whipped more often – but just enough to make a difference in the overall production of the plantation. These tactics are examples of “Selfhood Armor”. that the Enslaved used-an inner avengement(e.g. “White man you can enslave my body but you cannot enslave the rest of me.”) They would break or hide a tool when possible and then time would be spent having to get a replacement tool or extra money to repair the broken one or buy a new one. Or they could play into the fixed idea that the overseer had of Black people as ignorant and lazy and pretend not to understand simple instructions to do a task and make that overseer spend precious time with repeated explanations. Fences could be torn down or crops handled so badly they would not be fit for the marketplace. You can see that with “Time as Money” on the plantation these scenes playing out across the land would be very disruptive to the Whites sense of money and control. Taking something, like food, from the plantation owner or misplacing items was another form of sabotage. The idea was to strike back by disrupting the status quo of the plantation in every way they could, no matter how small it seemed.
Plantation owners became ever more terrified of the Enslaved, in and out of their homes, as word of rebellions elsewhere spread. The Slave owners would constantly be looking over their shoulder in fright as to what could happen next to them. They had food tasters to check the food before they ate or drank anything. The Enslaved resisted in every way they could, proving their strength and determination time after time. The female Enslaved had their own extreme form of resistance. Those who were of child-bearing age would make that decision that is so gut-wrenching for women. So strong was their love for the unborn baby and wanting to spare them from a life of misery and suffering, that they chose to abort their babies or kill them after birth to save them from a life of slavery knowing that child would also add to the riches of the owner. Many of the Enslaved with African knowledge of plant ingredients used it to poison the plantation owners and their families along with the livestock. Spitting into the food they prepared for the owner and family was also a way of feeling as though they were fighting back in some way. Another means of rebelling was the burning of barns and owner’s homes. The “Selfhood Armor” and “Slave Resistance” worked well for the Enslaved but became self-defeating when culturally transferred out of slavery and on into today’s struggling descendants.
Another extreme form of rebellion by the Enslaved was running away when they knew the price to be paid if they were caught. That price could include having body parts chopped off, being tied naked to a tree during the winter or having each limb tied to a different horse and being pulled apart. Overriding all of this was the chance of being free. And don’t let anyone tell you that the Enslaved did not put up much of a fight against slavery. There is documented evidence of more than two hundred and fifty rebellions or attempted rebellions of ten or more Enslaved From 1739 to 1858 there were many rebellions which the government called the Indian Wars involving the “Seminoles”. Seminole was a term used to mislead and hide the fact that African Americans were involved in battles for freedom for over 100 years. The Seminoles were a mix of Black Africans and Native Americans who were allied against white oppression. There was Dade’s Rebellion, the Stono Rebellion, Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Nat Turner Rebellion to name a few. The Haitian Rebellion of 1791 was a huge, successful, Black rebellion where the Enslaved fought valiantly, in Haiti, against the plantation system and slavery. It was an organized rebellion that saw Black slaves kill thousands of whites and burned many sugar plantations. But not only did they fight ferociously against Slavery, they fought and won against the well-armed and fortified forces of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. What courage it took to go up against that enemy with only the simplest of weapons, not enough food, clothing and no supplies! To add to that victory, the Enslaved were also able to fight back the British troops that came to the island. After a series of defeats, the British withdraw from Haiti. It struck panic in the hearts of white plantation owners for two reasons. One because it reversed the belief about the inferiority of Black people and their ability to achieve and sustain freedom as the formerly Enslaved were able to establish the second independent country in the Americas after the United States. And the second reason was because it threatened their comfortable and profitable way of life. The success of the Haitian Rebellion inspired many more rebellions when the Enslaved realized it could be done. The plantation owners of the USA organized police patrols, complicated slave -owner approved travel by the Enslaved, allowed gatherings of African Americans only if a white person was present and carried out increased inspections of slave quarters. An example that White folks were so terrified of the Enslaved was the South Carolina legislature passing the Security Act in 1739 that required all white men carry firearms to church on Sundays! Taking into account the repeated acts of defiance taking place all around them, on and off their plantations, even a rumor would send the plantation owners into a state of paranoid frenzy. The end of slavery came about not only because the Union won the Civil War but because White society could not continue to stand against the repeated and deadly attacks on every front by Black men working together for a common goal and that Free Black men would no longer tolerate it.
We can look to our Ancestors with pride for the fact that they battled Slavery by every means available to them, keeping their culture, with its traditions, music, words and beliefs, alive in the face of repeated, systematic, if not complete destruction, devised to erase every trace of them.
Remember the proverb that says the history of the hunt will not change until the lion learns to write?, well , get out there, find the truth and share it!