The Everyday Resistance of Enslaved Women

African American family, circa 1898. / Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Studying history is like detective work—especially when the rebellion of Black women has been left out of the story.

By Stella Dadzie
Educator and Activist

In her new book, A Kick in the Belly, Afrocentric British historian Stella Dadzie describes how her research into slavery-era documents reveals the lives of enslaved Black women in the Caribbean colonies and the American South. The phrase “kicked in the belly” summarizes the abuse enslaved women endured—but they also resisted, rebelled, and kicked back. “These women’s response,” she writes, “can be seen as a metaphorical kick in the belly for those who tried and failed to dehumanize them.”

It was only with the rise of the American civil rights movement and its more militant alter ego, Black Power, that my understanding of the history I’d been taught in school began to evolve. I chanced across George Jackson’s Soledad Brother in a public library one rainy afternoon and became well and truly hooked. Books by Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and (joy of joys!) Angela Davis fed a hunger I didn’t even know I’d possessed. I read everything I could lay my hands on, especially history books. But as I searched for the missing pieces of the jigsaw, my suspicions were confirmed. Black people had literally been airbrushed out of the picture.

They were not alone. Feminists like Sheila Rowbotham were busy arguing that women had been “hidden from history” almost as successfully, while Marx and Engels had long since come to similar conclusions about the working class. Apparently, the names history had chosen to remember were highly selective—more about who wielded the most political clout at the time. No surprise, then, that my efforts to locate black women in this gaping void proved doubly fruitless. If the achievements of working-class white people were peripheral to those of kings and princes, women of African descent with their triple burden of gender, class, and race hardly got a look-in. I felt a growing urge to name some names, and maybe pour a libation or two to honor their memory.

A Kick in the Belly, by Stella Dadzie

I was a working mother before I could indulge this sentiment in any meaningful way. Armed with a distant ‘O’ Level in history class, a sabbatical year at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies gave me the chance to explore at a postgraduate level questions that had been bothering me since primary school. With the writings of men like Frantz Fanon, Eric Williams, C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney tucked under my belt, I came armed with a healthy Afrocentric take on the subject and a tendency to side with the underdog. Both proved indispensable.

The challenge, as I saw it then, was to not get sidetracked by all the academic claptrap. My tutors had their clever postmodernist theories to mystify us with, but I could draw from real, lived experience. By then I had visited Saltpond, my father’s village in Ghana, and spent time traveling around Jamaica. Nothing about the vibrant, creative people I’d encountered in either country suggested dumb acquiescence. My thesis seemed pretty straightforward: it was the struggles between white masters and black slaves, oppressors and oppressed, that had led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and this in turn had paved the way for the slaves’ eventual emancipation a quarter of a century later. To credit the campaigning abolitionist William Wilberforce with this victory, as if he alone were responsible, was like crediting Christopher Columbus with the discovery of America –“a dyam, blasted lie.”

Of course, the deeper I delved, the more I realized things weren’t that simple. To view history in terms of absolutes, whether absolute truths or absolute lies, was to oversimplify a complex set of forces and circumstances that historians, if they are honest, can only ever guess at. It made no sense whatsoever to talk of “slaves” or “abolitionists” as homogenous groups who had acted in unison or spoken with a unanimous voice. Even established notions of race, class, and gender proved a blur of contradictions. By the end of that sabbatical year, the only conclusion I could embrace with any certainty was that the respective actions of the enslaved and those who championed their emancipation—diverse and disparate as they were—had combined with the economic imperatives of the day to work like a pincer until the abolition of the Africa trade became an increasingly urgent and persuasive option.

I came to realize that studying history was like detective work. However bloodied or one-sided the evidence, it could be interrogated and interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Then as now, lying by omission was common practice, and nowhere was this more apparent than in regard to black and brown-skinned women. The records, diaries, plantation inventories, abolitionist debates, much of the primary evidence, in fact, had either been written, compiled or interpreted by white males who assumed their experience was not only central but all-embracing. So, despite immersing myself in specialist history texts for months on end, my question continued to rankle: in over 400 years of slavery, with all of its documented horrors, what happened to the women?

I soon discovered that a growing number of Afrocentric historians, many of them based in the Caribbean, had been asking the selfsame question—women like Lucille Mathurin Mair, Barbara Bush, Pat Bishop, Erna Brodber, Mavis Campbell, Beverly Carey, Elsa Goveia, Olive Senior, Monica Schuler, Verene Shepherd and Sylvia Wynter, to name a few. Men like Hilary Beckles, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Richard Sheridan, and Michael Craton had also been doing invaluable research in this area. By delving into surviving medical and plantation records, reviewing parliamentary reports and newspaper archives, rereading old diaries and trawling through private letters, they had unearthed insights into the experience of enslaved women that not only challenged prevailing stereotypes but might otherwise never have seen the light of day. Their work has also helped to challenge the notion that the experience of enslaved people in the American South was all-encompassing, for while it was similar in many respects, it was by no means the same.

Thanks to this pioneering research, the extent to which Africa’s enslaved peoples were agents in their own emancipation is finally acknowledged, if only in specialist academic circles. How women contributed to this process is also increasingly documented, although the full extent and precise nature of their role is still debated. Strange, then, that over 200 years after abolition, despite this important sea change, our popular media remain fixated on the achievements of a handful of conscience-stricken white men, with the odd black man thrown in for good measure. If Hollywood is to be believed, enslaved people in the Americas owed their freedom to Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, and a gun-wielding cowboy named Django.

The realities of ordinary enslaved women have stayed mostly off-screen, and but for the few notable exceptions mentioned earlier, the same has been true of established historical texts on the subject, specifically those written by white male historians. From the earliest European descriptions of intransigent Maroons heading for the hills in the Caribbean islands to latter-day accounts of slave rebellions, black women have been largely conspicuous by their absence. On the rare occasions when they are mentioned, they tend to be viewed through the lens of a depressingly long tradition of academic misogyny, bolstered by some pretty crude and predictable sexual stereotypes.

Portrait of Matthew Lewis by George Lethbridge Saunders, c.1800. / National Portrait Gallery (London), Wikimedia Commons

As the planter “Monk” Lewis observed, black women were “kicked in the belly” throughout the period of slavery. Yet in many ways, these women’s response can be seen as a metaphorical kick in the belly for those who tried and failed to dehumanize them. To deny them their rightful place in history simply adds insult to a 400-year-long injury.

To some, the case for letting sleeping dogs lie must seem quite persuasive, no doubt because the subject of slavery is deemed too uncomfortable to warrant such scrutiny. Whisper the S-word on this side of the pond and, bar a handful of guilt-stricken universities, there is a collective squirm of embarrassment in the national seat. Mention reparations and politicians fudge or grow defensive. African Caribbean pupils have even been known to complain when the subject is brought up in class, suggesting little understanding of their roots, much less pride in their impressive heritage. Meanwhile, most of us turn an indifferent eye to growing evidence that modern-day slavery is alive, kicking, and operating under our very noses.

But this is precisely why the subject of slavery and the slave trade remains relevant. Despite the enduring myth of a self-contained “black” history, events in Africa and the Caribbean did not take place on another planet. Nor were the beneficiaries of slavery confined to mainland America, as recent films and much of the available literature tend to suggest. Britain’s imperial past is inextricably linked to the contributions and sacrifices of the enslaved. Her towns and cities are littered with evidence that for hundreds of years, African blood, sweat, and tears oiled the wheels of this country’s progress and lined its citizens’ pockets with gold. It was her enslaved and colonized subjects who helped put the “Great” in Great Britain, yet the great British public remains largely in denial.

There are other reasons why the realities of the transatlantic slave trade warrant closer attention. “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots,” to quote Marcus Garvey, and in a society like ours, where homegrown ethnic diversity is increasingly the norm, his argument has never rung truer. Today, with thousands of African women risking life and limb to make the hazardous trek north under conditions not dissimilar to the middle passage, the continuities are stark. So, however painful, however shameful, a better understanding of our shared past is vital to the health of Britain’s evolving multicultural identity.

Stories of how Africans and their descendants survived the experience of enslavement with their dignity and humanity intact provide a vast, untapped source of national pride. Like the survivors of the Holocaust who populated London’s East End or the heroes and she-roes who resisted fascism during the Second World War, their courage and resilience deserve to be honored, their intrepid acts publicly revered. If even a handful of African Caribbean pupils feel shame or unease at the mention of slavery, something has gone seriously wrong.

The enslavement of Africans by Europeans was, without question, one of the worst crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. Back in 2007, the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary act to abolish the British slave trade provided a rare (and largely missed) opportunity to highlight the role of its victims in bringing about its eventual demise. To have allowed that moment to pass without raising the profile of women was an added travesty. It’s time to place women center stage where they belong, fist in glove with the men. It was a long and arduous journey from slavery to freedom, but there is growing evidence to suggest that women were present every step of the way. A cornerstone of the plantation economy and increasingly the very key to its survival, enslaved women’s contribution to its eventual demise remains one of history’s best-kept secrets.

The evidence points to a distinctly female role in the development of a culture of slave resistance—a role that was not just central, but downright dynamic. Enslaved women found ways of fighting back that beggar belief. Whether responding to the horrendous conditions of plantation life, the sadistic vagaries of their captors or the “peculiar burdens of their sex,” their collective sanity relied on a highly subversive adaptation of the values and cultures they smuggled with them naked from different parts of Africa. By sustaining or adapting remembered cultural practices—be it music, storytelling, preparing food, administering medicines, fixing hair, birthing, and naming rites or rituals for burying their dead—they ensured that the lives of chattel slaves retained both meaning and purpose. This sense of self gave rise to a sense of agency so that over time, both their subtle acts of insubordination and their conscious acts of rebellion came to undermine the very fabric and survival of West Indian slavery.

In a nutshell, enslaved women made a distinctly female contribution to the advancement of the struggle for freedom—a contribution that deserves to be remembered, acknowledged, and honored across the African diaspora.

Originally published by Yes! Magazine, 02.19.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



%d bloggers like this: