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In 1800, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel, who lived and worked near Richmond, plotted to topple the Old Dominion’s slaveholding regime.
“I have adventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause.” Rebellion, though, was not the only way that enslaved African Americans fought back.
Their resistance took many forms, from highly visible attempts to flee bondage, to nearly imperceptible acts of sabotage and subterfuge.
Highlighting resistance also renders African Americans’ humanity plain to see.
African Americans fought back because they refused to accept their lot in life.
They have to explain how enslaved artisans honed and learned skills whenever possible, from blacksmithing to dressmaking, to increase their indispensability to those who profited off their labor and to decrease their chances of being sold and separated from loved ones.
They have to discuss how enslaved people attacked their enslavers’ property, burning their homes, barns and storage sheds.
Enslaved people formed families whenever possible, marrying, bearing children and keeping those children with them as long as possible.
They also held onto African cultural traditions, such as religious worship practices, which remain visible today among their descendants.
By focusing on resistance, educators reveal as false the myth that slavery was a benign institution and that enslavers were fundamentally kind.
If either were true, the enslaved would not have resisted.