In the History Corner… Black resistance to slavery was early, abundant and continual

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As we begin Black History Month 2023, we recall that listening to individuals talk about American slavery, we may have heard a wide variety of comments regarding the enslavement of Africans and the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Some of it has been informed and some uninformed. The comments have come from people with a variety of motives. They talk about how the Africans sold one another. They talk about how enslaved Africans often cooperated with the institution of slavery. On and on, the comments go. Despite all else, however, it is important to grasp the reality that African people resisted slavery early, abundantly and continually.

While it is true that there were African tribes engaged in capturing and selling other Africans to Europeans, it should be clear that this immoral practice often occurred as a part of numerous wars and that the nature of European slavery was far different from what many Africans knew or had come to imagine about slavery. Europeans fought tribal wars and sold one another. Asians fought such wars and sold captives as well. The European-induced Atlantic Slavery Trade, however, was unique in that it was based on ethnicity and was permanent for the victimized Africans. 

Even in this context, nevertheless, it should be pointed out that Africans resisted enslavement in every way possible. There were riots on board many of the slave ships. There are written accounts of the slave uprising on the Amistad, led by Joseph Cinque, but many others went unrecorded. There were at least 148 other such enslaved African uprisings on ships crossing the Atlantic, revealing the massive resistance of the African people. These were not docile people being led into abject slavery hundreds of miles away. 

In addition to the numerous uprisings on board the ships, an untold number of Africans jumped overboard committing suicide rather than remaining enslaved. Similar numbers of mothers threw their babies overboard for the same reasons. Such incidences remind one of a line in one of the early Negro spirituals, which said “and before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave…” These African people were not willing slaves by any stretch of the imagination. This part of Black history should not be neglected, lost, or forgotten. Rather it should be advanced or built upon.

Once they reached the shores of the Americas, the resistance continued. There are accounts of enslaved Africans running away immediately – surviving individually, joining with other escapees in “maroon colonies,” or joining with nearby Native American tribes. As time passed, even more Africans escaped and went north, south, or west. Fortunately, there are accounts of heroes such as Harriet Tubman, who served as a leading conductor on what became known as “the underground railroad.” More than a hundred thousand enslaved people escaped into the so-called free states, others into free territories, and still more into Mexico and Canada. 

Not just the youngsters, but adults as well should familiarize themselves with the underground railroad and the escapes of the enslaved Africans.

Throughout the period of slavery, there were Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who added their voices to the resistance by calling for the outlawing of slavery. There were more than a few Black abolitionists, such as David Walker and Henry Highland Garnett, who even called upon the enslaved people to rise up and violently throw off the chains of slavery. Such advice did not go unheard or unheeded.

Across the continents of North and South America there was massive resistance on the part of Africans in the form of slave revolts. One researcher has recorded more than 300 such slave revolts. The revolts range from the 1526 rebellion in the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Gualdape, to the Stono Rebellion led by Cato in the British colony of South Carolina in 1739, through the revolts planned or led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Charles Deslandes, Nat Turner, and numerous others. The most successful of these revolts being the one led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Saint Domingue, that ended in the establishment of the free Black country of Haiti. These slave revolts occurred all over the Americas, including in such unsuspected places as New York City (1712 and 1741) and in Florida (1816 – 1858). The Florida Rebellions are most often referred to as the Seminole Wars. In this situation many escaped Africans had become a part of the Seminole tribe and were fighting for their freedom and the sovereignty of Seminole territory. They are a part of the true history that is often hidden or neglected.

Nobody can deny that these revolts were acts of resistance against slavery. When joined with the thousands of enslaved people who resisted by escaping or attempting to escape, one can begin to understand the abundance of Black resistance that existed and the fact that such resistance was not confined to any particular geographic location of period of time.

In order to help appreciate or understand that period of American history, it is important that youngsters and adults study what actually happened rather than simply accepting the “fairy tale” narrative that is often presented of America having been the land of openness and opportunity for all people.

In addition to the escaping and revolting, several researchers have rightly pointed out that resistance to enslavement can be multiplied many times over by noting or counting the number of instances wherein African people who were enslaved resisted by deliberately breaking the tools with which they were working, by pretending to not understand how to use the tools or to carry out their assigned tasks, by pretending to be too sick to work, by setting fires to the fields, or even poisoning their slave masters. These forms of resistance can clearly be understood by many workers today whose jobs are oppressive and minimally rewarding. They were resisting their labor being forced from them for the profits of others. Resistance to slavery was baked into the very institution itself.

When things such as those above are considered and understood, hopefully individuals will no longer think that the Africans willingly accepted slavery. They will no longer think that the Africans did nothing to resist slavery, that they waited to be freed by Abraham Lincoln or somebody else. They will realize that there was resistance early, abundantly and continually; that sometimes the Africans waited for opportunities and sometimes they created their own or acted despite the lack of a clear opportunity.  

These may be important lessons for Black History Month or any other time. We would do well to get to know the names of the heroes, become familiar with the events involved, and remember the lessons embedded therein. These are things that can be utilized here and now as well as passed on to other generations

Next week: Black resistance to lynchings, terrorism, and other forms of violence

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In the History Corner… Black resistance to slavery was early, abundant and continual

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 6, 2023