More often than not in a modern America where intellectual pursuits are scoffed at by the unenlightened, the understanding of what slavery was and was not often gets lost in translation. Because ours is rapidly becoming a society of non-readers, many depend upon movie adaptations of historical events to provide knowledge and perspective.
Because Hollywood has been dominated by whites since the inception of the “moving picture” industry, the distortion of what slavery was, including the concept of the “happy darkey” or slave, seared into the public conscience that while slavery may not have been the preferred way of life for some blacks, that surely it was not as bad as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and other abolitionists made it seem.
Perhaps no movie drove such “alternative facts” and bold-faced lies about slavery than “Gone With the Wind,” written by Margaret Mitchell and adapted for the silver screen by David O. Selznick. GWTW had within its background slaves that ranged from the sassy, black dialect purveying moral compass (“Mammy,” played by Hattie McDaniel who won an Oscar for her role), to simpleton servants like “Pork,” “Big Sam” and “Prissy,” the latter of whom was played by Butterfly McQueen. What each of these characters depicted, mind you, was a fiercely loyal slave who was wholly dependent upon the good nature of their white masters for their lives and livelihoods even after the Civil War.
While these last mentioned characterizations for some blacks during slavery were true, what has been almost completely white washed from history has been the fact that across the Western Hemisphere, blacks periodically engaged in active resistance to their lamentable conditions.
It is for this reason that back in 2012, when Quentin Tarantino released “Django: Unchained,” such was the source of controversy among some historians. “Django” provided lurid images of violence and mayhem as extracted by the title character, played by Academy Award winner Jami Foxx, who upon escape from enslavement sets about in an effort to find and reclaim his wife Hildy, played by Kerry Washington. In the process, Django leaves a trail of blood and bodies of both white slave owners, overseers and “paddy rollers,” or “patrol men,” a group that during slavery was often made up of poor white men who made their living hunting down slaves at the behest of their patrician white neighbors. Tarantino, as misinformed about Black history as many Americans of all races, wondered aloud why Blacks did not rebel more–the fact is that they did, some to great success, during the nearly 400 years of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere. These rebellions often shocked the conscience of slave-owning whites who had fully bought into the aforementioned popular depictions of the felicitous slave, right up to the point that they were being killed in the greater cause of Black liberation.
Violence, however, was not the only manner in which enslaved Blacks resisted; resistance took the form of destroying tools used for farming, spitting into the food of masters or at times, choosing to leave the plantation and heading north or west to freedom.
In other instances, blacks rebelled outright and in the process, killed their white owners and neighbors in armed struggle.That this last instance has rarely made its way onto the big or small screen is of little surprise as with Hollywood for many decades being subject to many of the same racist mores as society at large, the idea of armed blacks murdering whites simply was not something likely to be green-lit by Hollywood executives.
In 2016, Nate Parker, a Black director embroiled in controversy stemming from a rape that he and fellow screenwriter Jean Celestine stood trial for while students at Penn State University, released “Birth of a Nation,” which was a fictional account of Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia in 1831. While critically acclaimed, the relatively average to poor showing at box office left some wondering whether other rebellions will ever be shown on the silver screen while others, like I do in this piece, remind that a Google search and a good book or article can provide far more substance and context of such important historical events.
Among the many enslaved black rebellions include the community of escaped slaves found in Quilombo Dos Palmares near Brazil, where from 1605 to 1695, the settlers lived in an autonomous African community that thrived until the Portuguese military finally destroyed it in 1695.
Similarly, in 1733, on the island of St. John in what was then the Danish West Indes and today, the U.S. Virgin Islands, King John, formerly a chief of the Akwamu people from Ghana who had been captured en masse and transported to the island to work on its vast plantations, led a revolt that lasted well over a year before finally being suppressed by a bastion of French and Swiss troops who arrived to quell the violence that the Akwamu had inflicted upon their white captives. The irony in the French complicity in defeating the Akwamu is not lost upon historians as later in the 18th Century, Haiti, a French colony on the Isle of Hispanola, found its enslaved Africans, eventually led by Touissant L’Overture, soundly defeat the French and declare Haiti an independent Black Republic in 1804.
While the Caribbean and South America were ripe for slave rebellions due to numbers, in the United States, the fact that with few exceptions, whites outnumbered both enslaved and free blacks, such made the likelihood of a succesful sustained armed revolt far less tenable. Further, enslaved Black women in the US bore an average of 9.2 children during their life spans, as such, fewer Africans from the mainland were imported to replace aging or dying slaves in that new births provided a fresh supply of laborers. Accordingly, within two generations, most blacks in the US were “conditioned” completely as slaves and devoid of contact with Africans who had previously been free or who had fought in service of their tribal leaders.
Thus, the very idea of killing their master, his entire family and all of his friends and kinsmen was not a popular one among enslaved blacks, especially once Christianity and the concept of forgiveness and “slaves, obey your masters” was injected into the collective consciences of slaves who could not read the totality of scriptures for themselves.
Still, there are three slave rebellions in US History that beg notice for the courageous plans that the leadership of the same developed to fight for freedom. Two in particular, Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion in 1800 and Denmark Vesey’s in 1822, met with little success. Prosser, a literate blacksmith, found his plans thwarted when they were leaked by a quisling slave seeking to curry favor from his master. As a result, Prosser and 25 of his men were hanged and more crucially, as Prosser could read and write, Virginia and its southern neighbors outlawed literacy among slaves, an offense that could lead to certain death for the precocious enslaved Black yearning to a literate.
Similar to Prosser, Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, planned a rebellion in which his fellow insurrectionists were to kill every white man, woman and child in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. South Carolina bore the distinction of being a state in which blacks outnumbered whites almost three to one prior to the Civil War. Vesey set the date for the rebellion to begin on July 14th—in commemoration of the French Bastille Day in which the French in 1789 deposed their despotic monarchy to establish a Republic—but like Prosser, Vesey’s plans were leaked by a timid slave quisling. As a result, Vesey, an early leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was executed along with his men. (Nota Bene—In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of Emmanuel AME Church—Vesey’s old church—for the symbolic reason of retribution for Prosser’s planned attack).
Barely a decade after Vesey’s rebellion, Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 was so successful that some historians note that it was responsible for legislation that cracked down on free blacks and greatly restricted “manumission,” the term used to describe the ability for black slaves to either purchase or be granted their freedom. Turner’s rebellion arguably led to the later passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, as even moderate whites who abhorred slavery abhorred the concept of blacks killing whites en masse even more.
Turner, born enslaved in Southampton, Virginia in 1800, developed a reputation as a deeply religious man who preached the Gospel to his fellow slaves. Turner’s long periods of fasting and meditating led him to believe that he heard God’s voice and that God wanted him to lead his fellow slaves from bondage through violence. Turner also believed in signs, and following an eclipse in February 1831, decided to lead a slave rebellion on July 4th of that year. The rebellion was postponed until August, when a band of nearly 70 slaves and free men traveled the area near Southampton and killed an estimated 65 white men, women and children. Turner eluded capture until October of that year, and was tried and condemned to death and hanged on November 11th. Turner’s lifeless body was then mutilated and left to rot. 56 of Turner’s fellow insurrectionists were also hanged and hundreds of uninvolved blacks were killed by vengeful militia and police forces throughout Virginia.
The evidence shows that many did, some to great success (Haiti), others to symbolic success (Nat Turner) and still others successful if for no other reason that it showed that the natural human desire for freedom led some enslaved men and women to seek that very freedom through any means necessary–even bloodshed.