Then said the mournful mother,
If Ohio cannot save,
I will do a deed for freedom
Shalt find each child a grave.
—-Frances E.W. Harper, “, A Tale of Ohio”
Aqualtune. Nanny. Dandarah. Zabeth. Carlotta. Margaret Garner.
Theirs are just a few of the known enslaved Black women who struck a blow for freedom against the savage monstrosity known as slavery.
Everywhere in this hemisphere, many, many Black women resisted chattel slavery; resisted the sexual abuse and exploitation that was their lot in life; resisted the life of perpetual bondage that sought to crush and annihilate the humanity of themselves, the men in their lives—-their children.
Many Black women fighters for freedom knew that they took a chance in prevailing against their enslavers, but, they knew that if they did not work to break the chains of bondage forged by the greed of slavers, not only would they remain enslaved—so, too, would their children, and their children’s children, and those children’s children.
When people think of resistance against enslavement, so many people picture a Black man, but, not a Black woman.
But, as the many Black women I wrote of, Black women did not stand by as if they had no agency, no resolve, no fortitude to bring down the institution of slavery.
All across this hemisphere, Black fought in whatever way they could to free themselves, and for many Black women, no tactic used in resistance to enslavement was trivial or insignificant, no matter what the costs it brought. Running away, fighting, breaking tools, poisoning owners, malingering—whatever it took, these were the many paths Black women would go down to free themselves from a lifetime of servitude to parasitical, leeching slaveholders.
“Mothers who departed with their children confronted special difficulties. It was not easy to feed, clothe, care for, and protect young children while on the run. The physical burden of carrying babies or youngsters four or five years of age was extreme, while the seven- or eight-year-olds had trouble keeping up and often tired quickly. One runaway mother took her child despite his being “sick with a sore mouth and cannot speak.” Mothers themselves often suffered from maladies. Thirty-year-old Matilda, a New Orleans black who absconded in 1832 with her seven-year-old son, had a tumor on the side of her neck. A number of the women who ran away with their children were city slaves or had recently arrived in the city. They planned to hide out, get to a suburb, or sneak aboard a sailing craft or steamboat. The owner of jenny, a mulatto servant who departed from his house in the French Quarter carrying her two-and-a-half-month-old baby, would, the owner believed, attempt to embark on a steamboat.
“Pregnant women also ran away. Twenty-one-year-old Lucille, a Louisiana woman who set out in 1833, was “in an advanced stage of pregnancy.” “The captains of vessels are requested not to give her shelter,” the New Orleans widow who owned her threatened, “under the pain provided by the law” to punish the captains. Nancy was seven or eight months pregnant and was limping because of a sore toe when she ran away in 1834, shortly before Christmas. Twenty-eight-year-old Jane, or Jinny, a mulatto slave, was “with child” when she absconded in 1835. The runaway Martha Ann, Virginia slave owner John J.Minter said in 1850, “expects to be confined in six or eight weeks.” He had purchased Martha Ann—-an eighteen-year-old mulatto—-only two months before.” (1)
Many people do not envision a child resisting enslavement. But, many did—-more than we will ever know. As Zabeth desired freedom, so too, did many little Black children thirst and hunger for it as well:
“Perhaps even more heartrending were children running away to find their mothers and fathers. Their chances of success were very remote, as eight-,nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds usually wandered in vain seeking their parents. Invariably they were caught and returned to their owners. By the time they reached their early to mid-teens, however, their chances improved but only slightly. The runaway notices did nit mention the motives of slaves who absconded, but for youngsters, the owners surmised that they were attempting to follow a mother or father or uncle or aunt or grandparent who had been sold. How Peter, age fourteen or fifteen, made if from the farm in northern Virginia to the mountains of Alabama without being detected seems a remarkable feat in itself. He was jailed in Tallapoosa County, however, and the jailer sent a letter to a Richmond newspaper asking his owner “to come forward, prove his property, pay expenses and take him away.” Nothing was said about why the youngster was running toward the heart of the Deep South, but it surely had to do with a search for his family. (1)
Black women used many devices to escape or to keep themselves or their family members being sold into slavery. One way to fight against slavery had to have exacted a heavy toll, physically, and psychologically on Black women who were mothers who refused to allow one more enslaved child to enrich the blood-smeared coffers of the slave master and his family. Therefore, infanticide happened, and we will never know the toll it had to have taken on many a Black mother who chose to take her child’s life rather than to allow her or him to live a life of enslavement:
“Reports of black women’s resistance posed a particularly threatening psychological challenge to white men, whose patriarchy rested not only on the subjugation of all nonwhites, but also on the social, economic, and political subordination of all women. Of the psychological challenge that enslaved women’s resistance presented, Darlene Clark Hine observes:
A woman who elected not to have children—or, to put it another way,
engaged in sexual abstinence, abortion, or infanticide—negated
through individual or group action her role in the
maintenance of the slave pool. To the extent that in doing so
she redefined her role in the system she introduced
a unit of psychological heterogeneity into a
worldview, which depended, for its survival, on homogeneity,
at least with respect to the assumption of its ideology. (2)
Black women endured unimaginable hardships and cruelties during slavery in their struggle for daily survival. At times, however, the desire to live gave way to the recognition that survival demanded a price that they were no longer willing to pay. Such recognition served as a catalyst to armed resistance, murder, or suicide. In this state of mind, Black women acted not as the allegedly grateful and compliant wards and seducers of slaveholders, but as warriors in the fight to end slavery.
The violation of enslaved women often was very public. Consider for example the following description of enslaved women’s work environment:
“Ma mama said that nigger ‘oman couldn’t help herself, ‘fo she had
to do what the marster say. ‘Ef he come to de field whar
de women workin’ and he tell gal to come on, she had to go. He would take one
down in de woods an’ use her all de time he wanted to,
den send her back to work. Times nigger ‘oman had children
for marster an’ his sons and some times it was
fo’ de ovah seer. (2) (3)
During the course of the day, week, month, throughout the year, enslaved Black women on plantations were chosen randomly to perform sexual acts with slave owners, their sons, and overseers. Such conditions rendered their terror of rape to the realm of the ostensibly mundane.
Many Black women rebelled against their sexual abuse and their being faced with the possibility of a master selling them. Because Black women were routinely publicly violated, it is understandable that in their efforts to resist, they were willing to reclaim, at all costs, their always already publicly exposed, publicly abused bodies.
In one heartbreaking example, an ex;enslave recalled, “I knew a woman who could not be conquered by her mistress, so her master threatened to sell her to New Orleans Negro traders. She took her right hand, laid it down on a meat block and cut off three fingers, and thus made the sale impossible.” While the woman in this account was made bereft of the full use of her right hand for the rest of her life, she did seize ownership of her own body, which rightfully belonged to her. The horrific and perverted circumstances provided a context in which self-mutilation could become an act of resistance. However, it is important to note that continual resistance to the mistress’s attempts to conquer her most definitely preceded this rash act. (2)
Slavery apologists were hard-pressed to defend a system that so traumatized Africana people, that in desperation, rage, and defiance some enslaved Africans would run away, mutilate themselves, murder, and, at times, such as in the case of Margaret Garner, actively decide to take not only take their own lives but also the lives of their own children. The Garner case provides a particularly useful example of the influence Black female resistance had on the development of ethnological, proslavery arguments. In fact, Margaret Garner’s contemporary importance as a symbol of the antislavery cause rivaled that of Toni Morrison.and Anthony Burns—men whose stories are very well-known, while Margaret’s had fallen into oblivion. Yet Margaret’s story disappeared until resolutely, beautifully, and lovingly resurrected over a century later by
Slavery sought to dehumanize every aspect of enslaved Black women’s lives. A country that at every turn, at every minute, at every conceivable way created and maintained a system that denounced, diminished, degraded, defiled the grisly torture and sufferings that millions of Black women endured.
But, enslaved Black women refused to let the slave holder, the racist pseudo-scientist of that day, the apologists for slavery to have the last word.
Black women may have been enslaved in body, but, they were never enslaved in mind.
In their acts of insurgency, Black women fought back against assaults upon their humanity that was a constant barrage of lies that they were inferior, lies that they were not human, lies that they were not women.
Black women were determined to fight against the disrespect of their humanity.
Even unto this day, Black women still have to fight against the legacy of centuries of the hatred of not only of Black people, but, most of all, the hatred of Black womanhood.
For in their resistance to racist, sexist, exploitative and enslaved tyranny, Black women showed their “obedience to God”.
A legacy they passed on to future Black women.
1. “Runaway Slaves: Rebels On the Plantation,” by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Oxford University Press, 1999: Chapter 3: “Whither Thou Goest” -Mothers and Children,”, pgs. 64-65.
2. “Shout Out: Women of Color Respond to Violence,” edited by Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige, Seal Press, 2007. “Chapter 4: Messages of Pain: I Will Do A Deed For Freedom”: Enslaved Women, Proslavery Theorists, and the Contested Discourse of Black,”, pgs. 281-297.
3. We Are Your Sisters, 25; Aunt Jane: Rawick, vol. 8 Perdue L. Charles, E. Barden Thomas, and Rovert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils In The Wheat (Charlottesville, 1976).