Guest Editors' Notes

by Edna Greene Medford, Ph.D. and Selwyn Carrington, Ph.D.

     In the last few decades, a great deal of attention has been devoted to understanding the responses of Africans to their enslavement in the Americas. Focus has been directed specifically toward the struggle of enslaved people to define their own identity and to affirm their humanity in the face of efforts to reduce them to mere chattel. What these studies have revealed is that resistance took varied forms, including acts of defiance such as malingering, feigning illness, breaking tools, arson, flight and armed revolt. Equally effective were African-inspired cultural practices such as naming patterns and certain religious customs. Resistance was both individual and collective, overt and invisible. The success of efforts to oppose their enslavement were measured not by the quantity or magnitude of armed revolt, but rather by the extent to which enslaved people could exercise daily control over the terms and conditions of their lives and labor.

     Competing and contradictory definitions of freedom and the struggle to control time occupies John Campbell’s attention in the essay presented here. Campbell asserts that both enslaved laborers and plantation mangers understood the significance of "freedom," but each defined it in very different ways. The enslaved Africans’ concept of freedom was shaped by their experiences in Africa. Hence, they employed certain bargaining and resistance strategies that had been learned on the continent.

     The essay by Medford and Brown reflects the growing interest in the experiences and responses of enslaved African women in the British North American mainland colonies. Heretofore, studies of slavery—especially resistance to bondage—have focused primarily on men’s agency. In emphasizing the conditions of women, the authors find that those enslaved in eighteenth century New York endured excessive labor and a degree of social isolation. They conclude that, although demographic patterns and customs of the era prevented these women from enjoying the kind of social outlets and avenues available to men seeking to resist dehumanization, they found ways to express opposition to their exploitation.

     Both essays reveal the operation of what is called "the continuum of resistance" that originated in Africa and persisted in the Americas. On both the mainland and on the islands, as enslaved Africans took steps to defy their enslavers, they fought for the dignity and basic rights they had known in their homeland . In so doing, they defined themselves and rejected notions of inferiority and subordination which whites attempted to thrust upon them. That rejection facilitated their survival and served as a constant reminder to their owners of the difficulty of converting Africans to property.


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August 2000