Blog #5: The Diversity and Resistance of the Enslaved

Enslaved people in pre-Civil War America were as varied as any group. Each had distinct personalities and diverse histories reaching back to different regions of Africa. Going forward, I will try not to refer to them as “slaves” because it minimizes their uniqueness and frames them in relation to a system of oppression.  It’s why I avoid referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.”  
While categories will always be used, let’s be particularly respectful when using them regarding people who are oppressed and stereotyped.  Enslaved men, women, and children were insultingly stereotyped in minstrel shows by whites in blackface (a topic for a future blog), but we do have access to the testimony of survivors. Interviews funded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s helped historians like Eugene Genovese reveal the many unique personalities of, and innovative tactics used by, enslaved people.
It’s true that some slaves were “broken” by the system, stripped of ambition and reduced to numbness. Most slaves, however, retained their sense of purpose and identity while concealing their real thoughts in order to survive. Many slaves intentionally presented the “thankful slave” persona, smiling and flattering their owners to minimize punishments.  Reassured about the contentedness of their chattel, owners were less vigilant, so slaves could take food or plan their escape.

Some enslaved Africans played up the myth of inferiority, feigning confusion about work orders, thus gaining another few minutes reprieve from back-breaking labor as their overseer explained their task over again.  Others would “accidentally” break a plow or a wagon wheel, allowing them precious rest while repairs were made. Playing off white paternalism helped many survive. 

Others, like Frederick Douglass, enhanced their reputation as surly and rebellious, a riskier strategy.  Such “problem slaves” were often sent to “slave-breakers” or sold to the deep south where large plantation life offered a cruel fate.  Douglass’s outward resistance did, however, both enhance his self-respect and proved to one cruel farmer named Covey that Douglass would not be “broken.”

  • Lesson #11: Try not to categorize and dehumanize individuals in marginalized groups by referring to their status as defined by oppressive systems.

  • Lesson #12: Since history is usually written by “the winners,” derive your historical understanding by beginning with the stories of oppressed people.

  • Lesson #13: The diversity of survival strategies used by enslaved people demonstrate both their great ingenuity and the relative ignorance of their enslavers who thought they “knew all.”  

  • Lesson #14: Frederick Douglass proved that forceful resistance to oppression sometimes works.

Hugh Taft-Morales