African American Women Slave Revolts

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“Not Killing Me Softly: African American Women, Slave Revolts, and Historical Constructions of Racialized Gender” is an attempt by Rebecca Hall, to uncover women’s participation in slave revolts and to address a concern of why enslaved women were silenced in revolt. She also focuses on why certain aspects of slave revolt are seen as exclusively male activities. To accomplish her task, she uses a number of book excerpts from prominent historians, as well as many sources from accounts of slave revolts in history. Although Hall relies heavily on the works of other historians to support her argument, she also utilizes her own observations and experiences to strengthen her thesis. The significant points discussed in Hall’s dissertation are, the Prose of Passivity as a foundation of the silencing of women in revolt, as well as the gender role as a major contribution to the exclusion of women in slave revolts. In order to have a more comprehensible understanding of why women were silenced during slave revolts, one must first have a clear understanding of what a revolt is. For the purpose of Hall’s dissertation, a slave revolt is defined as any confrontational, violent, and/or coordinated act of resistance that kills or attempts to kill slave owners or their agents. To better illustrate the silence of women in slave revolts, Hall provides “Celia’s Conspiracy” as an example of a slave revolt initiated by a woman slave, Celia, who is completely erased from the account of the revolt. This example is one of many that Hall uses to illustrate the silencing of women throughout history in slave revolts. According to Hall, as well as many historical accounts of slave revolts, revolts seem to have become strictly a male responsibility. Many motives have been given to account for this perception of slave revolts, many of which Hall offers in her dissertation. One striking validation of revolts being strictly a male responsibility is that slave women, as mothers of children and nurturers of their families, engage in less confrontational or non-violent forms of resistance. Other historians offer that women engaged in other forms of revolt such as destruction of property, suicide, or infanticide. The question is then raised, why are women slaves not included when recounting the numerous slave revolts that existed throughout history? One general response to this matter is the interpretations of historians in reviewing documents. Historians review documents and make assessments about who led revolts and who participated in revolts based on their own assumptions. This is a significant explanation for the exclusion of women from revolts because, as stated by Hall, history is prefigured to exclude the presence of women. Another response offered to satisfy this inquiry is what Hall refers to as the “Prose of Passivity.” The Prose of Passivity is a discursive construct which brings about the limitation of enslaved women’s agency to preclude he possibility of seeing their participation in armed revolt. In other words, enslaved women were seen as to passive to be capable of initiating revolt. The Prose of Passivity also became the foundation in which the pacification of slave women could take place. Consistent with Hall, the Prose of Passivity created a structured silence of the absence of African American women in the history of the United States Slave Revolts. Although the Prose of Passivity was primarily focused on the passivity of the women slave, before the institution of slavery, women were not always seen as passive. In fact, Elkins Thesis, formulated by Stanley Elkin, actually suggests that it was the male slave who was passive. According to Elkin, the stereotype of the black “Sambo”- the passive childlike slave who maintained complete dependence on his white master- was real throughout the history of slavery. Extending this theory to only concern “manhood,” Elkin believed wholeheartedly that “whatever real authority...
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