On Violence, Resistance, and Self-Determination

By Hunter Moyler

As I’ve been working with Untold RVA and Free Egunfemi this summer, two of the aspects of Richmond history I’ve been tasked with finding and recording is that of Black resistance to adverse power structures and self-determination.

“Self-determination,” as you might deduce, refers to a person’s ability to determine their own fate and the steps they take in order to overcome the adversity that may prevent them from doing so. “Resistance” is similar. It denotes the avenues by which marginalized groups challenge the unjust social order of their day. I’ve found that in the era of slavery, which most of my research has centered around, a plethora of the deliberate acts of self-determination and resistance included radical, often violent, subversions of laws, laws created to fence-off African Americans from achieving anything approaching equity with their European contemporaries.

And when I say violent, I mean it. Look no further Angela Barnett, a free Black woman who lived in Richmond in the late eighteenth century, who killed a man who broke into her house under the suspicion that she was harboring an escaped enslaved man. (Sidbury, Ploughsares into Swords, 4) Or, take Martha Morriset, an enslaved woman who, along with others living on Chesterfield County plantation, murdered her so-called “mistress” after she tried to “correct” her and then chopped up her body and tossed the remains in the James. (Sidbury, 220 – 221) And, of course, I’d be tragically remiss not to mention that General Gabriel, as part of his unfructified plan to establish a free Virginia, intended to kill all Whites “except Quakers, Methodists, and French people” (Amateau, Come August, Come Freedom, 220) until Governor Monroe assented to the soldiers’ demands for emancipation for all of the Old Dominion’s Black population.

The actions of these people were certainly bold moves to take their lives into their own hands and subvert their oppressors, and of course these ought to be recorded and remembered. Each time I read about the enslaved retaliating against their captors, I take note of it. But such reading has placed a smorgasbord of food for thought in front of me, and I’m beginning to feel a smidge bloated.

It’s complicated. It’s not as if all this violence was unprovoked, of course, but that doesn’t solve everything. As a member of the enslaved African American descendant community myself, and as someone who spends a good deal of time thinking about my enslaved ancestors’ lives, I hold that I’m about as indignant about slavery as someone this day and age can be. It’s absolutely sickening to me, for example, that the earliest documentation of my family on my father’s side in this “land of the free” is the listing of my fourth great-grandmother in a man’s inventory — right after the horses, if I recall correctly.

At the very same time, though, I can’t shake off this thought: If murder is not wrong, nothing is wrong.

It’s very curious to me that I’ve devoted so much time to pondering the ethics of enslaved people’s acts of violence. Truly, such violence or intents of violence against authority are the birth pangs of revolution. Take the American Revolutionary War and its (in my opinion) infinitely more justified cousin, the Haitian Revolution. Both of these began because people felt righteous indignation at their position in society fervently enough to lash out at systems that at the time seemed impossible to overcome. I would hope that the reader can swiftly conclude that being considered property is a more loathsome position to be in than supposedly insufficient representation in one’s government, but the point remains.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Gabriel’s Insurrection, had it succeeded, might have been an inheritor of this esteem afforded to the other revolutions. Gabriel may have been considered one of the founding fathers of our concept of liberty, on par with George Washington or Toussaint L’Ouverture. The parallels are there and must be considered. Perhaps my thinking is influenced by the fact that while the aforementioned violent acts by the enslaved demonstrate noteworthy resilience and drive to stand up to oppression, they do not, on the surface, seem to have sparked large-scale liberation movements.

An important question to consider, then, is whether the crime of claiming and exercising ownership of another person’s body outweighs or equals the crime of snuffing out another’s life. The argument that owning chattel or participating in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a crime deserving of capital punishment could be a solid one, I think, notwithstanding the opposition to the death penalty that my position as a decently affluent, privileged, unenslaved, 21st-century college student whose loved ones have never been affected by assault or human trafficking often allows me to take. Like many others, I oscillate between different opinions on capital punishment to the point of dizziness.

The short and sole answer to this question — that I can provide, anyway — is that I can’t say. It may even be inappropriate to judge the actions of the enslaved who were violent toward their captors. No matter how much I read, I’ll never be able to capture more than a fraction of an iota of the anguish and frustration that being considered and treated as mere beasts of burden must have caused to fester in them. I certainly won’t make-believe that I’d be above such violence, were I living in their circumstances.

Whatever the case, I think it’s worthwhile to think about these questions, which is why learning about and disseminating this untold history is of the utmost importance.

Hunter Moyler was raised in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is a rising junior at the University of Richmond, double-majoring in English and Journalism with a minor in Spanish. He is vice president of the College Democrats at the University of Richmond and co-editor of the Opinions section in The Collegian. This summer, he’s elated to have the opportunity to delve into the history of race relations in his state thanks to an A&S Summer Research Fellowship.