Improving the Conditions of Life: Forms of Slave Resistance
North America's slaves did not passively accept treatment dictated by their masters. In the narratives, along with descriptions of the slaves' treatment and their feelings about it, there is a wealth of information testifying to a continual battle over the ground rules of plantation life. The slaves challenged some of the master's standards openly, struggled to subvert those that they could not overturn, and seized any opportunity that offered a means to improve their lives. In a thousand ways, ranging from subtle deception to bold defiance, they fought their owners. Many options, including successful revolution, were beyond the limits of possibility in the South; so the slaves used what tools they had in the arena closest at hand. Their resistance helped to shape the conditions of life on the plantation, and their wills often forced an improvement in those conditions.
Too often historians tend to define resistance by its extremes. The question, How did the slaves resist bondage? sometimes becomes, When did they stage violent revolutions? or worse, Why did they not revolt more often? To understand the slaves' resistance and assess its scope, one must accurately judge the possibilities open to them. Most former slaves interviewed for the narratives revealed that they had exhibited both a stubborn predisposition to resist and a sensible rejection of daring but hopeless action.
The slaves built a defiant mentality upon a sober appraisal of their situation. For example, one form of resistance which the