Hall, Rebecca. “Not Killing Me Softly: African American Women, Slave Revolts, And HistoricalConstructions of Racialized Gender,” Vol. 1, Issue 2 of The Freedom Center Journal, a jointpublication of University of Cincinnati College of Law and the National Underground RailroadCenter, 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.
In Not Killing Me Softly, I recover the stories of enslaved African American women leading revolts on slave ships and in colonial New York City, and 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. We can recover these brave women’s stories and return their acts to history.
Mainstream histories emphatically insist that enslaved women in the United States did not participate in slave revolts. 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 enslaved people consented to being enslaved. Radical historians like W.E.B DuBois and Herbert Aptheker were telling the truth about resistance, but that kind of work didn’t make it into the academy, or the textbook. As African American male historians began to be heard against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they recovered 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. As Stokely Carmichael said when asked about the role of women in the Civil Rights movement, her replied: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
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. 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. Let us honor these women. Read Not Killing Me Softly: African American Women, Slave Revolts, and Historical Constructions of Racialized Gender