Machiavelli says that the lion may hold the wolf at bay, but the fox can avoid the trap.

For centuries, enslaved women artfully, strategically, and sometimes successfully staged resistance to their oppression. They operated in secretive ways, manipulating a system so engulfed in itself that it failed to recognize worthy opponents. Those women used their intellect, as opposed to staging grand violent rebellions, to create subtle, surreptitious strategies against evil in a hostile and unforgiving world. A few examples here serve as representations of the many in the diaspora.

The importance of Black resistance

The demeanor of Maria Claiborne and a woman identified only as Charlotte suggested frailty. They were frequently weak and sickly, requiring constant medical attention. Enslaved healers failed to address their condition, which also stumped doctors. Slaveowner John Steele Haywood reported to his brother and business partner that “Maria Claiborne is very worthless particularly when [there is] a difficult piece of work present and will lay up for a week; the same case with Charlotte last year, (although) she (Maria Claiborne) has overseers [healers] and all sorts visiting her.” The “difficult piece of work” that Maria artfully avoided involved the cotton fields in 1836 Greensboro, Alabama.

This is the kind of resistance that cunningly hid itself in secrets, and flummoxed adversaries. “Maria from appearance will not last thro’ [sic] the crop. I can’t abuse her for fear her sickness is real,” Haywood wrote. The women appear to have “feigned illness,” a strategy of resistance. Such was also the 1839 case of Sylvia who was “too much of an idiot for any purpose except shucking corn, picking up wood.”  

Whether the women’s “illnesses” and supposed diminished capacity had a subversive, economic intent, unproductive slaves sufficiently threatened slaveowners’ profits. The bottom line clearly worried the Haywood brothers as the year’s harvest “remain(ed) unsold;” and, the coming crop, promising though it was, rested -unknowingly to the oblivious — at the mercy of willful deceit.

“Now, let’s talk about Suzon and her damn family,” Monsieur Franc Dupuis wrote to Antoine Goguet’s widow, Marie Renault. Suzon and her four children had arrived in New Orleans around 1809 as the property of Goguet, refugees of the Haitian Revolution. Goguet had initially remained in Haiti before retrenching in Guadeloupe, with the delusion that France would reclaim Saint Domingue from the Black revolutionaries. His wife returned to France. He sent Suzon and her family to New Orleans to wait, promising them freedom and a return to Saint Domingue.

Suzon lived on that unrealized hope through the 1820s, manipulating Antoine Goguet and Marie Renault’s absences to her advantage. According to Dupuis, the family’s representative in New Orleans, Suzon and her children repeatedly “protested that they were free and (were) waiting on their papers from Saint Domingue, and that besides, they had never belonged to you (Madame Goguet). They even allowed themselves to be insolent against you, so no one wanted to buy them anymore.” To Dupuis’ chagrin, Suzon even hired a lawyer “to force…her freedom.”

Suzon’s obstinate reputation traveled throughout New Orleans and its outlying areas. Potential buyers feared the risk of infiltrating their human property with her willfulness. She was, after all else, a Black person from revolutionary Haiti. She was too much, Dupuis reported to the Widow Goguet. She and her “mauvaise enfants” continued to roam the streets of New Orleans, rejecting supervision and “abandoned to themselves always saying they are sick and considering themselves free,” while scraping for survival. They sometimes did things that landed them in jail. When released, they refused to pay the fines.

To make matters worse Suzon went to live with “un homme de couleur libre,” a free man of color, who gave her ownership of his house, “in violation of our laws that do not allow a slave to own properties,” Dupuis warned. His attempts to remove her failed. After 15 years, exasperated and powerless to control her, the last of four people who “governed” Suzon, now a grandmother, officially emancipated her, as Madame Goguet settled her husband’s estate. (He died fighting for Saint Domingue.)

The estate cleared ownership and sold her daughters to the fathers of their children; her son, now a brick mason, sold for his skill to a Dominguan free man of color. All remained in New Orleans, where diminished distinctions between gens de couleur libre and esclaves often prevailed; giving each of them the appearance of marginally “free” lives.

Suzon was not a lone example of enslaved mothers mounting a subversive resistance against their oppressors. Many made use of Catholicism’s doctrine of infant baptism coupled with policies of manumission. Enslaved mothers turned spiritual baptism into a practical means to free their babies. According to Jessica Johnson’s book Wicked Flesh, the mothers utilized the ambiguities that “free-by-baptism manumissions existed somewhere in the gap between imperial possession for release from bondage and individual slaveowners’ prerogative to manumit their property. … Proof…or the requirement of proof,” Dr. Johnson writes, “was inconsistently enforced.” Sometimes priests, confounded by the determined arguments of enslaved mothers, recorded a birth in the registry for free people. Owing to slavery’s partus sequitur ventrem, (status follows the womb) the urgency to baptize, so closely after birth, took a new meaning: freedom.

Marie Claiborne, Charlotte, and Sylvia in Alabama, and Suzon, along with the many enslaved mothers in New Orleans, were not anomalies. Enslaved women made use of various devices of resistance throughout the diaspora.  Dr. Johnson notes that while the prevailing view of enslaved women was as “wicked” just because their bodies existed, the women’s intellect, that is, their insight and discernment marked their resistance. Smart and astute, the women took a stand against evil and resisted its dominance over themselves and their progeny.

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Eva Semien Baham is an assistant professor of history at Dillard University. She focuses on social and cultural histories, primarily on Louisiana’s African American communities. In doing so, she meshes...