The Everyday Resistance of Enslaved Women

Yes Magazine shares an excerpt from Stella Dadzi’s A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery, and Resistance (Verso, 2020). [Note: We have shortened the excerpt further; please read the original at Yes Magazine. Many thanks to Peter Jordens for all related links.]

In her new book, A Kick in the Belly, Afrocentric British historian Stella Dadzie describes how her research into slavery-era documents reveals the lives of enslaved Black women in the Caribbean colonies and the American South. The phrase “kicked in the belly” summarizes the abuse enslaved women endured—but they also resisted, rebelled, and kicked back. “These women’s response,” she writes, “can be seen as a metaphorical kick in the belly for those who tried and failed to dehumanize them.”

[. . .] With the writings of men like Frantz Fanon, Eric Williams, C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney tucked under my belt, I came armed with a healthy Afrocentric take on the subject and a tendency to side with the underdog. Both proved indispensable.

The challenge, as I saw it then, was to not get sidetracked by all the academic claptrap. My tutors had their clever postmodernist theories to mystify us with, but I could draw from real, lived experience. By then I had visited Saltpond, my father’s village in Ghana, and spent time traveling around Jamaica. Nothing about the vibrant, creative people I’d encountered in either country suggested dumb acquiescence. [. . .]

Of course, the deeper I delved, the more I realized things weren’t that simple. To view history in terms of absolutes, whether absolute truths or absolute lies, was to oversimplify a complex set of forces and circumstances that historians, if they are honest, can only ever guess at. It made no sense whatsoever to talk of “slaves” or “abolitionists” as homogenous groups who had acted in unison or spoken with a unanimous voice. Even established notions of race, class, and gender proved a blur of contradictions. [. . .]

I soon discovered that a growing number of Afrocentric historians, many of them based in the Caribbean, had been asking the selfsame question—women like Lucille Mathurin Mair, Barbara Bush, Pat Bishop, Erna Brodber, Mavis Campbell, Beverly Carey, Elsa Goveia, Olive Senior, Monica Schuler, Verene Shepherd and Sylvia Wynter, to name a few. Men like Hilary Beckles, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Richard Sheridan, and Michael Craton had also been doing invaluable research in this area. By delving into surviving medical and plantation records, reviewing parliamentary reports and newspaper archives, rereading old diaries and trawling through private letters, they had unearthed insights into the experience of enslaved women that not only challenged prevailing stereotypes but might otherwise never have seen the light of day. Their work has also helped to challenge the notion that the experience of enslaved people in the American South was all-encompassing, for while it was similar in many respects, it was by no means the same. [. . .]

The realities of ordinary enslaved women have stayed mostly off-screen, and but for the few notable exceptions mentioned earlier, the same has been true of established historical texts on the subject, specifically those written by white male historians. From the earliest European descriptions of intransigent Maroons heading for the hills in the Caribbean islands to latter-day accounts of slave rebellions, black women have been largely conspicuous by their absence. On the rare occasions when they are mentioned, they tend to be viewed through the lens of a depressingly long tradition of academic misogyny, bolstered by some pretty crude and predictable sexual stereotypes.

As the planter “Monk” Lewis observed, black women were “kicked in the belly” throughout the period of slavery. Yet in many ways, these women’s response can be seen as a metaphorical kick in the belly for those who tried and failed to dehumanize them. To deny them their rightful place in history simply adds insult to a 400-year-long injury.

To some, the case for letting sleeping dogs lie must seem quite persuasive, no doubt because the subject of slavery is deemed too uncomfortable to warrant such scrutiny. Whisper the S-word on this side of the pond and, bar a handful of guilt-stricken universities, there is a collective squirm of embarrassment in the national seat. Mention reparations and politicians fudge or grow defensive. African Caribbean pupils have even been known to complain when the subject is brought up in class, suggesting little understanding of their roots, much less pride in their impressive heritage. Meanwhile, most of us turn an indifferent eye to growing evidence that modern-day slavery is alive, kicking, and operating under our very noses. [. . .]

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