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224 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 15 illus., notes, bibl., index

$39.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2872-4

$18.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5534-8

Published: Fall 2004

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Closer to Freedom
Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South

by Stephanie M. H. Camp

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


All margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered.

—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

In the past three decades or so, the question of slave resistance in the United States has won the attention of dozens of historians. Beyond only historians of slavery, even scholars of the Old South not specializing in the topic have given thought and space to the issue in their books. It was, after all, the existence of slave resistance and the study of it that helped to move American scholarship on slavery from the plantation nostalgia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the "Sambo" theses of midcentury to the impassioned "accommodation versus resistance" debate of the past few decades. This argument has shaped the contours of much of what we have learned about life in the Old South.

A cursory review of the literature would suggest that the argument revolved around such either/or questions as Did enslaved people identify with their owners, or did they infuse their lives with independent religious and cultural meanings? Were their families destroyed by the slave trade, or did they rebuild, remember, and endure? Did they submit to slaveholders' authority, or did they condemn it as immoral and unjust? On closer inspection, scholarship from approximately the 1970s through the end of the twentieth century was rarely so simply framed, and much of it provided the foundation for recent work that explicitly dissolves dichotomous choices. Some scholars of slavery now consciously explore the contradictory and paradoxical qualities in bondpeople's lives: for instance, the ways in which they were both agents and subjects, persons and property, and people who resisted and who accommodated—sometimes in one and the same act.[1] Enslaved people were many things at once, and they were many things at different moments and in various places.[2] They lived multiple lives, some visible to their owners and to the archival record, some less visible. Side by side, public and hidden worlds coexisted in the plantation South; their black and white inhabitants shared space, agreed on its importance, and clashed over its uses.

While studies of resistance are easily and often accused of naìveté, of romanticizing bondpeople and of underestimating the extent and subtlety of their owners' power, it seems that the opposite is also often true: these very studies offer a keen appreciation of the forms of abuse and exploitation against which the enslaved struggled and to which they often submitted. Slave resistance was a fact of life throughout the Americas, constituted not in the trends and opinions that shape academic discourse but in the slavery experience itself. The fields, auction blocks, chains and jails, disease-ridden swamps, whips, damp and drafty residences—these were the settings and instruments that ensured the coexistence of misery and dissent in the quarters. Slave resistance in its many forms is a necessary point of historical inquiry, and it continues to demand research. Yet how resistance is studied has changed and must continue to do so; complicating the questions that inform the study of resistance need not mean abandoning the category altogether. Indeed, doing so would cost us insight into essential parts of the history of slavery. For all that we now know about slave resistance, many of its dimensions remain opaque. Assuming that few new sources will come to light, we need innovative ways to read our existing ones.

Theories of everyday forms of resistance, those small acts with sometimes outsize consequences, have opened enormous possibilities for understanding the meanings of actions that might otherwise appear to be little more than fits of temper. Theft, foot dragging, short-term flight, and feigning illness were commonplace acts in the Old South and are widely understood to be everyday forms of resistance—hidden or indirect expressions of dissent, quiet ways of reclaiming a measure of control over goods, time, or parts of one's life. But what are we to make of the larger significance of such opposition?

Though it is possible to understand such acts as "safety valves" (that is, as individual expressions of dissatisfaction that released anger and frustration but posed no danger to the system), such an interpretation loses sight of their importance to slaves and slaveholders. Neither accommodationist nor a direct attack on slavery, everyday resistance occupied, as political scientist James Scott has argued, the wide terrain between consent, on one hand, and open, organized opposition, on the other.[3] Before the rise of a strong, centralized state in the United States after the Civil War, conflicts between people over everyday practices and more were especially important. On antebellum plantations, where elite slaveholders had many of the powers later ascribed to the state, it was in the daily tug-of-war over labor and culture that power and its assumptions were contested from below—not in formal institutions such as courtrooms or political organizations. In such a context, the everyday is a particularly salient category of analysis. The day-to-day resistance of slaves demands to be understood in multiple ways. To a degree, day-to-day acts of opposition were the result and expression of the dialogic of power relations between owner and owned—part of quotidian plantation relations characterized by a paternalistic combination of hegemonic cultural control and violent discipline that was supposed to extract not only obedience but even consent from enslaved people. To a larger extent, however, this framework fails to explain everyday slave resistance sufficiently. The paternalist model offers an apt theory of plantation management but an incomplete perspective on plantation, and particularly black, life.[4] Sustained, collective rebellion was almost always impossible under the level of slave control that permeated antebellum southern culture. Most opposition was, of necessity, masked and short lived; in itself, this is a measure of the force (not the hegemony) to which enslaved people were subjected.

Turning our attention to the everyday, to private, concealed, and even intimate worlds, is essential to excavating bondwomen's resistance to slavery because women's history does not merely add to what we know; it changes what we know and how we know it. The valorization of the organized and the visible veils the lives of women, who rarely participated directly in slave rebellions and who made up only a small proportion of runaways to the North—the kinds of slave resistance that have been most studied within the United States. It is, therefore, particularly important to look to the subtler forms if we are to understand women's lives in and resistance to slavery. In turn, these add complexity to our knowledge of American slavery itself. Studying bondwomen's opposition has demanded creative approaches: a shift from the visible and organized to the hidden and informal, as well as rigorous attention to personal topics that, for enslaved women, were also political arenas.[5] Closer to Freedom proceeds from the conviction that dichotomies such as personal/political, material/symbolic, organized rebellion/everyday resistance, accommodation/resistance obscure at least as much as they reveal.

The attenuation of classic social scientific dichotomies, then, is one of this book's themes. Understanding resistance mainly as a "public" phenomenon (visible, organized, and workplace oriented) and as less significant in "private" places limits our understanding of dissent and distracts us from interesting connections. Overlooking the links between the public and the private—between material or political issues, on one hand, and cultural or intimate (emotionally and physically) issues, on the other—limits our understanding of human lives in the past, especially women's lives.[6] For bondwomen, even more than for enslaved men, intimate entities, such as the body and the home, were instruments of both domination and resistance. Enslaved women's bodies were exploited in the fields and sexually violated in the quarters. Although enslaved women were hardly housebound in the way that antebellum white women of means, trapped by the "cult of domesticity," often were, they nonetheless were burdened by a disproportionate share of household labor. The body and the home were key sites of suffering but also a resource in women's survival.[7]

To think about women's bodies and their distinct forms of labor within the home is to think about the spatial history of American slavery, a topic we have only begun to investigate and that is this book's second theme. Social relations and social values are constituted and reflected in the design of the built environment and in the distribution of people in space. The architecture and peopling of places of work, amusement, intimate life, and public interaction all help to shape and reveal details of wider social life. As geographer David Harvey has written, "temporal and spatial organization … serve to constitute the social order through the assignment of people and activities to distinctive places and times."[8] Take, for instance, the transformation of Virginia's wealthiest farms in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Until about the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the main dwelling house on such farms was often a ramshackle construction situated as one among other buildings. Farm buildings and the fields and gardens that skirted them were laid out in a random if not haphazard manner. Tobacco and corn crops were sown between the trees and stumps of uncleared land as well as in fields, and livestock grazed freely across unfenced pastures, woodlands, and fields. To travelers in eighteenth-century Virginia, these farms looked, one historian has reported, like "slovens."[9]

By the mid- to late seventeenth century, however, a small group of elite families (about twenty-five family lines) had acquired large landholdings and great wealth. A fashion-conscious clique, they looked to England for the latest in clothing and architecture. These stylish fat cats were, by the early eighteenth century, in the grip of the Georgian style of architecture. This good taste, they hoped, would illustrate their rank and their difference from the riffraff with whom they lived in the colony. Order, symmetry, and harmony were characteristic of the Georgian style, as was the incorporation of classical details such as pediments and columns. Great houses, built not of rickety and impermanent wood but of brick, were carefully sited on their estates among formal gardens and parks that conspicuously displayed ornamental, nonfunctional use of land. Avenues approached them in a linear manner to highlight the centrality of the great house. Offices, outbuildings, and slaves' quarters were sometimes arranged on a grid and always in a predictable and balanced manner around a main residence that was occasionally elevated above the other buildings. The built relationship of these great houses to their "dependencies" was clearly one in which "a strong sense of gradations of dominance and submission was expressed."[10] The Georgian design of house and estate showed planters' mastery of nature and their prominence in society.[11]

Gender roles, like class rank, were constituted in space. Harvey was again instructive when he wrote that "the body, the house, gender relations of reproduction as well as gender roles … all become caught up in a wider symbolism constructed around space, time, and value."[12] As historian Stephanie McCurry has shown, the prestige and power of property holders in South Carolina was linked to the marking out of boundaries of landownership. In 1827 the South Carolina legislature amended a 1694 statute on fences, revealing a shifting attitude toward what needed to be enclosed and for what purpose. The 1694 law had mandated six-foot fences around "corn and other provisions" in order to prevent "evilly minded" small farmers from craftily enticing free-foraging livestock over short fences and onto their property, where they could then claim them as their own. The 1827 law, on the other hand, had very different intentions and, McCurry noted, "encoded a markedly different landscape." Instead of being designed to prevent the theft of mobile livestock by small farmers, fences in the 1827 law were to enclose and protect the crops of property holders, including crops grown for the market by larger farmers. Whereas the 1694 law tried to deter a form of theft but continued to uphold common rights to land, the 1827 law initiated a "slow and steady" erosion of common rights in the antebellum years.[13]

The "boundaries of power" created by fences consolidated white patriarchal authority over both large plantations and self-working yeoman households, McCurry has demonstrated. The Fence Law and the rulings for which it provided precedent in the following decades slowly eroded common access to land, waterways, and roads. Neighborhood residents who might have previously enjoyed decades of public passage on a road, for example, could find it suddenly—and legally—fenced off and impassable. Certainly the hunting and foraging that was permitted on unfenced land (even if privately owned) stopped when a fence was encountered. Over the antebellum period, South Carolina's jurists created "a plantation landscape dominated by fenced enclosures" that guaranteed property holders the "exclusive use" of their land. Inside fenced boundaries, property rights were sacrosanct. Moreover, property holders were acknowledged to be not merely heads of households but masters of them and of all the dependents (free women and enslaved people) within. Fences had become symbols of the Old South's gender, race, and labor relations within the household.[14]

This project builds on these histories of the relationships between space, social relations, gender, and power in the Old South. It gives less attention than other studies to the built environment and more to the peopling of plantation space—to the containment and movement of enslaved women and men. It argues that the broad operation of politics in the Old South was profoundly invested in black and white uses of space. Space mattered: places, boundaries, and movement were central to how slavery was organized and to how it was resisted. This project explores planters' attempts to confine slave activity to specific places, the ways enslaved women evaded that captivity, and the perpetual conflicts that arose as a result of these differing ideas about how space was to be used. Geography has provided both a way of seeing new aspects of enslaved women's lives and the language to describe those sights.

By the antebellum period (beginning around 1830) laws, customs, and ideals had come together into a systematic constriction of slave movement that helped establish slaveholders' sense of mastery. Planters presided over controlled and controlling landscapes dictating the movements of their slaves into the fields or yards and back to the quarters, with carefully considered breaks and holidays. Morning reveilles, slave patrols, curfews, and laws requiring passes and banning independent travel or meetings were all instituted to limit and control slave movement in both space and time. Enslaved women and men were bound by this "geography of containment," but women in greater numbers and with greater consistency were confined to southern plantations; as a group they enjoyed much less mobility than did men.[15]

In violation of slaveholders' orders and the state's laws, though, enslaved people left the quarters at night. "Watching every step that they take for the guard or patrol," slaves "venture[d] out" at night to the very woods and swamps that were intended to distinguish legitimate and illicit plantation space.[16] "All margins are dangerous," Mary Douglas commented. "If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins."[17] Again and again, enslaved people ran away and created other kinds of spaces that gave them room and time for their families, for rest from work, and for amusement; on occasion, women moved forbidden objects into their quarters to worrisome effect. As they moved about, those who had the gift read the sights and sounds of the natural environment—the events of the skies or the squawks of birds—for signs of opportunity or trouble. Others simply looked for the landmarks—distinctive trees and shrubs or outbuildings—that could guide their way along clandestine trails to secret meeting places.

In short, bondpeople created a "rival geography"—alternative ways of knowing and using plantation and southern space that conflicted with planters' ideals and demands. The term "rival geography" was coined by Edward Said and has been used by geographers to describe resistance to colonial occupation.[18] I have adapted the term for the slave South, where the challenge for enslaved people was not one of repossession of land in the face of dispossession but of mobility in the face of constraint. Thus the rival geography was not a settled spatial formation, for it included quarters, outbuildings, woods, swamps, and neighboring farms as chance granted them. Where planters' mapping of their farms was defined by fixed places for plantation residents, the rival geography was characterized by motion: the movement of bodies, objects, and information within and around plantation space.[19]

The rival geography did not threaten to overthrow American slavery, nor did it provide slaves with autonomous space. Much of the rival geography, such as woods and swamps, was space to which planters and patrols had access, and other parts, including quarters and outbuildings were places over which they also had a large measure of control. Nor was there anything safe about bondpeople's illicit movements or the temporary spaces they created; to the contrary, these activities and areas were truly dangerous. The rival geography did, however, provide space for private and public creative expression, rest and recreation, alternative communication, and importantly, resistance to planters' domination of slaves' every move.

Just as slave resistance was forged in the conditions of enslavement, it gained some of its significance from that same source. The importance of slave resistance cannot be separated from slaveholders' concerns about social control and plantation efficiency and attributed solely to its value to the enslaved. Enslaved people's many forms of resistance were struggles for life without reference to their owners as well as responses to their owners' efforts to deny them, for instance, access to their families or time alone. It is planters who attest to how much slaves' search for space and time to themselves mattered in their own time; slaveholders' violent actions and their words illustrate the extent to which some slave activities cut them to the quick by challenging their authority and, they feared, by making their plantations less efficient. That enslaved people were willing to risk gruesome punishments for the sake of a degree of mobility speaks volumes about its importance to them.

Space and the control of bodies in space were important to both slaveholders and enslaved people, and they were major points of conflict. Studying the rival geography requires a leap of the imagination, for it was space charted by movements that were, by design, hidden, and as a result, little documented. Mutable and secret, the rival geography was far less institutionalized than the black public sphere of the postemancipation years, and probably less so than the "invisible institution" of slave religion.[20] What follows is an exploration of this unstable underground, of women's participation in it, and of planters' outraged responses to it. Closer to Freedom explores the entanglement of gender, race, space, and slavery in the American South. Not limited to the antebellum years, the relevance of space in the formation of race and place runs throughout American history, including the postemancipation years. Indeed, in light of the findings here, the rise of segregation in the late nineteenth century seems less like a new solution to an old "negro" problem and more like a fresh expression of deep-rooted investments in the placing of black and white people in space and society.

A few words on method are necessary. Though spare, documentation comes to us consistently from both the upper and the lower South in slaveholders' diaries, journals, and correspondence; in state legislative records; in nineteenth-century autobiographies by ex-slaves; and in twentieth-century interviews of the formerly enslaved. All of these sources present difficulties, and alone none tells all we might want to know. For all of the problems of plantation records and legal sources, however, historians of slavery tend to focus their methodological critiques on the interviews of ex-slaves. The criticisms contend that the interviews collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were conducted decades after emancipation, after too much had happened in the lives of the informants to make their recollections creditable. Many of the interviews were also done by whites, further warping the information respondents gave. I do not dispute the problems inherent in the WPA interviews, but I do not conclude from them that these sources are unworkable.[21] Gathering material from a variety of sources (which are black and white, contemporaneous and subsequent, written and oral), this book builds a story out of their agreements and common accounts, as well as from the insights offered by their differences.

Variations among locales were important and, when the sources allow it, are explored. Overall, though, Closer to Freedom studies bondwomen across the South, and not only for reasons of evidence. Many recent studies on American slavery focus on a region, a crop, or a county.[22] This trend has deepened our understanding of the variations of work and culture in American slavery, it has furthered our sense of important differences among enslaved people, and it has added texture and detail to our picture of day-to-day life in bondage. At the same time, for all of the important variations attributable to crop, region, and local demographics, American slavery was, above all, a system of economic exploitation, racial domination, and racial formation that, when studied in a broad geographic range, reveals strong continuities as well as differences. Studying slavery across the South remains a valuable practice, as recent works on the slave past have demonstrated.[23] We have much to learn about the interplay of local and individual experiences of enslavement, and much also to learn about slavery as a system and resistance to it as a practice with patterns and trends common in different states and subregions. Everyday forms of resistance and competing moralities regarding the uses of plantation space were an issue everywhere in the slave South.

I make no attempt to catalog all forms of illicit movement. Readers interested in fugitives, slave religion, marronage (the establishment of independent societies), theft, and other related topics that have been closely examined elsewhere will find references in the notes.[24] Even less does this book cover the many forms of resistance in which bondwomen engaged. This work studies women's lives in and resistance to bondage and those aspects of motion and space most pertinent to women: the short-term movement of the body and the uses of the home. Like many other recent histories of women, this book does not and cannot exclude men from the story, for enslaved women's lives were in many ways entangled with the lives of their men. Bondwomen did not inhabit a "separate sphere" from their male relatives, lovers, friends, and neighbors. At the same time, women's experiences of slavery were in significant ways distinct from those of bondmen, and this book gives most of its attention to them.

Change over time is central to the study of history, as is attention to the pace of change itself, which also varies. No moment in the life of the world is ever static, but if words such as "revolution" and "transformation" mean anything, they imply that change is faster and more profound in certain times than in others. The Civil War years were the time of greatest flux during the period under study here. The power and control that planters had enjoyed was, at different rates in various places, eroded by Union soldiers who disrupted the local status quo, by the demands of Confederate armies who overrode the autonomy of individual planters, and by the actions of enslaved people who, more openly than they ever could before, broke rules, spoke their minds, and ran away to the Yankees. The war years saw revolutionary change that had been in the making, as we shall see, for decades preceding the conflict.

This book, then, is thematically and not chronologically organized. Two themes run through the following chapters. The dissolving of common distinctions—between individual and collective (Chapter 2), pleasure and politics (Chapter 3), private home and public matters (Chapter 4), and day-to-day resistance and mass action (Chapter 5)—is the first theme. Motion, the key element in the rival geography, is the second. The first chapter establishes the spatial framework for the book, tracing how containment was a core part of American bondage. Planters went to great trouble to control the movements of the people they owned, and Chapter 1 investigates why such minute control was meaningful to planters at the time, and why it is an important part of the history of American slavery now. The next three chapters focus on patterns of barely discernible activity that were carefully hidden on plantations across the South. Chapter 2 looks at the practice of truancy, an intentionally temporary escape. In addition to engaging in absenteeism a good deal more than they ran away, women were also key to enabling the short-term flight of others. Women, then, were users and makers of slaves' rival geography and were instrumental in facilitating an endemic labor problem in the Old South. Chapter 3 explores bondpeople's secular hidden institution: the illegal party. This chapter argues that women created "third bodies" that were sites of pleasure and resistance. Chapter 4 is a close reading of two incidents involving bondwomen who acquired abolitionist materials and posted them on the walls of their homes. In these instances, slave cabins were linked to a national readership of abolitionist print culture and an illustration of the advancement of abolitionism into the South. They were the meeting ground of everyday plantation resistance and high national politics.

Investigating everyday forms of resistance does more than draw us into secret worlds; it alerts us to the hidden origins of the most dramatic historical events. Revolutionary moments may make spectacular breaks with the past, but they also are formed by them, spilling over from the old constraints and making the most of new opportunities to do visibly what formerly had been cloaked.[25] Chapter 5 analyzes the moment when the hidden was made visible, when covert resistance moved out of the underground and into the light of day. In this chapter I look at enslaved women's and men's motion from a perspective somewhat different from that of earlier chapters. During the war thousands of enslaved people escaped slavery by running to Union army camps. This migration from bondage to freedom was shaped by antebellum gender patterns that deepened during the war, and it was made possible by the knowledge antebellum slaves (especially men) had acquired about plantation and extra-plantation space and the value that all had placed on its use. The relative openness of flight during the Civil War made slaveholders—and the records they left behind—more informative about slaves' illicit movement than they had been before. At the same time, the activities of women remained more difficult to locate than those of men (in whom the Union army was very interested and about whom they wrote a good deal; war, it is clear, was men's business). The effort to find and write about black women during the Civil War continued to require resourceful reading of the material.

During their enslavement, women and men—in fear, rage, indignation, and desperation—fled some of the worst moments of their bondage. These escapes were not palliatives but were of value to enslaved people and offensive to planters. They were also part of a long-term freedom struggle that ended with emancipation and the Confederate surrender in April 1865, only to begin once again at those same moments. The unmaking of the slavery regime was in process throughout (at least) the antebellum period, in the hands and feet of those who would live to exploit national crisis to bring about their own liberation.

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