From the beginning, Black men and women resisted their enslavement . . . under the most difficult conditions, under pain of mutilation and death, throughout their 200 years of enslavement in North America, these Afro-Americans continued to rebel. Only occasionally was there an organized insurrection. More often they showed their refusal to submit by running away. Even more often, they engaged in sabotage, slowdowns, and subtle forms of resistance which asserted, if only to themselves and their brothers and sisters, their dignity as human beings. —Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
For too long, historians painted a picture of the idyllic old U.S. South with paternalistic slave owners and docile and content slaves. Though challenged in the 1930s and ’40s by historians like W. E. B. Du Bois and Herbert Aptheker, this remained the dominant narrative of slavery until the late 1960s and ’70s. Today, any discussion of slavery should be coupled with the myriad and heroic ways enslaved people resisted their enslavement.
It’s also important to put this resistance in the broader context of how the U.S. economy was built on the backs of enslaved people. Students should grapple with how central the labor, knowledge, and skills of enslaved people were to the entire Southern economy. The stakes for maintaining slavery were high and any resistance was often met with brutal retaliation.
Nevertheless, enslaved people, with great courage, engaged in all sorts of resistance. While this pre-Civil War resistance did not ultimately topple the deeply entrenched institution of slavery, it challenged pro-slavery arguments that enslaved people were happy and content and provided fuel for abolitionist denunciations of slavery. Maybe more importantly, it established a tradition of defiance that was built upon during the Civil War and Reconstruction when wider acts of resistance became possible.
This lesson introduces students to several of these concepts, establishes the various ways that enslaved people resisted, and celebrates that resistance, culminating in a collective poem. To write the poem, students will break into groups and each group will express in poetry what they’ve learned about resistance. This lesson provides seven types of resistance as a guide:
Group 1: Theft and Property Destruction
Group 2: Maintaining the Family
Group 3: Culture, Music, Religion, and Education
Group 4: Resistance at Work
Group 5: Running Away
Group 6: Verbal and Physical Confrontation
Group 7: Revolt
This lesson was originally published by Rethinking Schools in Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War.