“African American women participated in and led slave revolts. They fought on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They took up weapons and fought in revolt after revolt after revolt in the United States. Mainstream history books want you to believe this did not happen.”
Published in” Vol. 1, Issue 2 of The Freedom Center Journal, a joint publication of University of Cincinnati College of Law and the National Underground Railroad Center, June, 2010
Winner of First Article Prize, American Historical Association, Coordinating Council for Women in History, 2011. Supported by the Mellon Foundation’s Post‑Doctoral Fellowship at U.C. Berkeley, the American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship, and National Science Foundation/Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.
African American women participated in and led slave revolts. They fought on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They took up weapons and fought in revolt after revolt after revolt in the United States. Mainstream history books want you to believe this did not happen. However, enslaved women leading revolts are all over the primary sources leading slave revolts.
In this article, I recover the stories of enslaved African American women leading revolts on slave ships and in colonial New York City, to show that we are being mislead. Silenced. Pacified. I show how to find the women in the documents: The court records, newspaper articles, captains’ logs of slave ships, insurance policies, government documents. The letters to the British Crown and its Privy Council. Regulations on how to “manage cargo” on slave ships. The correspondence of slave owners. Even the bones of enslaved women buried in “the negro burying ground” in New York City have stories to tell. We can recover these brave women’s stories and return their acts to history.
And why all this silencing, anyway? The first histories of slavery in the United States denied that enslaved people resisted at all, since the “peculiar institution” in the U.S. was so “benign” and “civilizing” for African people. Later white male historians would develop complex social theories as to why there was no resistance: slavery was a “totalizing institution,” similar to concentration camps. Slavery was “hegemonic” and slaves consented to being enslaved. Radical historians like DuBois were telling the truth about resistance, but that kind of work didn’t make it into the academy, or the text book. As African American male historians began to be heard against the back drop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they told the histories of the hundreds of slave revolts that occurred in this country, helping to bring down the institution itself. But they wrote in the framework of the pervasive discourse that insisted Black “sex roles” were dysfunctional—the men “emasculated,” the women “matriarchal.” So they insisted that enslaved women did not take up the manly work of coordinated acts of violent resistance. They walked 10 steps behind their men, as proper women should.
As women’s history began to be taken seriously in the late 1970s and 1980s, these feminist historians never questioned the central assumption that enslaved women didn’t participate in revolt. Instead they wrote to reclaim all the other acts of resistance: the arsons, the poisonings, the destruction of tools—those daily acts that wear on an institution, the “weapons of the weak.” They argued that these more “feminine acts” were just as powerful, if not more so.
“Not Killing Me Softly,” was the first historical work that pushed back against all this. These stories of my women ancestors did not ring true in my ears. It didn’t make sense to me. I started doing the detective work we historians are trained for, and there, in the sources were the women. Read about the strength and sacrifices of our ancestors as they gave up their lives in the struggle for freedom. Lets honor these women. Read Not Killing Me Softly