Black Women’s Resistance in Slave Rebellions

“Nat Turner & His Confederates in Conference.” 1863 (Wikimedia Commons)

Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community by Vanessa M. Holden, an associate professor of history, narrates the 1831 Southampton Rebellion and maps out the resistive geography of Black communities in Southampton County, Virginia. Historical accounts on the Southampton Rebellion often focus on leader Nat Turner and other men and boys who were involved in what is considered one of the most famous rebellions against slavery. Holden illuminates specific acts of evasion and survival in the daily life of free and enslaved women and children that lived in Southampton County and positions the Southampton Rebellion as the product of an interconnected community.

Surviving Southampton joins the recent shift in historical scholarship from male-centered slave rebellion narratives by offering an interpretation of enslaved people’s resistance. Holden explicitly calls out the gendered binary in historical research on slave rebellions: “enslaved men rebel while enslaved women resist” (6). This gendered binary casts women as inactive during slave rebellions. Holden argues that African American women’s daily resistance and survival strategies were significant in their participation in slave rebellions and particularly the success of the Southampton Rebellion. Specifically, Holden asserts that “enslaved women’s labor afforded them greater mobility and an important role in building and defining geographies of evasion and resistance” (8).

Holden relies on published transcriptions of primary materials, original archival sources, and edited source collections, including images of minute books and Southampton County court records. The voices of the Southampton community are illuminated through Holden’s consultation with editions of Weevils in the Wheat from the Slave Narrative Project of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. Holden’s use of court records, maps, and other forms of primary documents with the narratives provides a richer understanding of the community as “the genesis of resistive action” before, during, and after the rebellion (7).

The book is organized in five chapters that map out the resistive geography of the Southampton County, Virginia community. This structure helps the reader understand the individual and collective actions of enslaved African American women, free people of color, and African American youth, including how they endured and survived in the aftermath of the rebellion. The conclusion of each chapter reiterates Holden’s overall argument and assists the reader in making connections across community members.

The first chapter outlines the history and geographies of surveillance and control in Southampton County that prompted local African American communities to craft and execute evasive techniques for daily survival. In chapter two, Holden explores the participation of enslaved woman Ester, Charlotte, Lucy, Cynthia, and Venus along the route of the rebellion. Though these women were rooted their respective farms, they contributed to the rebellion at various levels. The third chapter examines the community of free women of color in Southampton, including their role in the local labor economy, their access to geographies of evasion and resistance in the broader African American community, and their participation in rebellion events and its aftermath. The fourth chapter sheds light on the place and role of children, such as Moses, in the Southampton labor market and how the youth learned and navigated spaces of surveillance and control. The fifth chapter details the geographies of survival in the rebellion’s aftermath, including court proceedings that illustrate the white community’s demand for mastery and preserving social hierarchy. Surviving Southampton concludes with a short chapter that briefly illustrates how descendants of Nat Turner and the free and enslaved African Americans of Southampton County remember and continue the stories and resistive legacies of the historical rebellion.

The content of Surviving Southampton illuminates the 1831 Southampton Rebellion as a product of community-constituted practices of resistance and survival. Holden extensively outlines the roles of enslaved African American women, free women of color, and African American youth in the labor economy of antebellum Southampton County. Holden provides labor contexts in these chapters to build her argument that each held a specific significance to the labor market. For example, Holden states that “enslaved women’s labor afforded them greater mobility and an important role in building and defining geographies of evasion and resistance” (8). In the second chapter, Holden uses accounts of human geography to illustrate how African American women’s roles as “gendered laborers allowed them mobility and access within farms that perfectly positioned them” to refashion white enslavers’ sites of control and surveillance into strategic geographies of resistance and survival that were valuable in moments of the rebellion (36).

Throughout Surviving Southampton, Holden supports a compelling argument and critical interpretation of enslaved Black women and their actions as “embedded in [the rebellion’s path and its planning action” before, during, and after the rebellion. (37) Holden critically analyzes primary material sources such as court trial records and minute books during the rebellion trials to further support her argument that Black women were active agents in the Southampton Rebellion. She argues that the appearance of Black women in court documents give voice to their lived experiences during moments of the rebellion, their participation in rebellion events, and their survival strategies before, during, and after the rebellion (97). Holden’s description of primary sources surrounding African American women’s involvement in the rebellion and the court trials that followed shed light on interpretations of silence in archival research. She advises that it is “important to acknowledge what the available sources cannot reveal” (84). Her statement both highlights the issue of lack of perseveration and representation of African Americans in primary material sources and the use of silence as strategies for agency, protection, and resistance. Holden’s interpretation of enslaved African American women during the Southampton Rebellion provides a deeper understanding of the Southampton Rebellion dismisses traditional accounts that cast Black women as bystanders during violent rebellions against slavery.

Surviving Southampton is an engaging interpretation that illuminates the roles, voices, and lived experiences of African American women throughout the Southampton Rebellion. Holden has written a catalyst text that can prompt historical scholars to examine further interpretations of women and youth participation in resistances and rebellion against slavery.

Holden has shifted away from presenting a singular narration of one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history. Instead, the inhabitants of Southampton Rebellion are illuminated as intergenerational agents of resistance. Holden attends to gendered issues, such as absence and silence, related to archival research and representation of African American women while she elevates their significance to the rebellion and their community. Surviving Southampton is a strong example of how historical accounts of slave rebellions can mobilize human geographies to rediscover new interpretations of the sustained resistance and survival of African American women. This book sheds light on the multifaceted ways that African American women passed down resistive legacies through their stories surrounding the Southampton Rebellion.

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Asia Thomas Uzomba

Asia Uzomba is the Equity-Based Collective Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Education at American University. Her research mobilizes the past as a roadmap for the future by examining historical and contemporary contexts of race and anti-racism in relation to teaching and learning in teacher education, K-12 schooling, and curriculum and instruction.

Comments on “Black Women’s Resistance in Slave Rebellions

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    I love Holden’s Surviving Southampton and learned so much from it. And Ms. Uzomba’s review here is excellent in highlighting the major achievement’s of Holden’s short, invaluable book. I am grateful!

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