- Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South
In Closer to Freedom, Stephanie Camp provides readers with a creative interpretation of gender and day-to-day resistance among nineteenth-century Southern slaves. Her approach to this topic is imaginative. Part of her thesis considers the "geography of containment," a concept she employs to describe slaveholders' use of restraint in exercising control over their bound laborers. The second part of her thesis suggests that bondpeople etched out "mobility in the face of constraint" that operated against their owners' efforts. Borrowing from the work of Edward Said, the author concludes that "bondpeople created a 'rival geography' . . . characterized by motion: the movement of bodies, objects, and information within and around plantation space" (7). Closer to Freedom explores the rival geography between the enslaved and their owners, noting that it operated in clandestine ways during the antebellum era and in visible, overt, and sometimes offensive ways during and immediately following the Civil War.
Readers will approach this study of "enslaved women and everyday resistance" looking to find an exploration of the resistance strategies bondwomen engaged. However, in the introduction, Camp informs the reader that this book is about "the relationships between space, social relations, gender, and power in the Old South" (6). While women are central to the analysis, the book is as much about men. Leaving the subtitle on the dustcover, Closer to Freedom examines two themes: motion and diffusing dichotomies. These dichotomies include "individual and collective," "pleasure and politics," "private home and public matters," and "day-to-day resistance and mass action" (9).
The topic of slave resistance has been studied for several decades, yet Camp contends that it is far from being exhausted. With this in mind, she encourages scholars to consider innovative ways to address resistance studies by developing original theories from existing sources. Answering her own call, she begins with the "principles of restraint" that slaveholders used throughout the South. "Planters' greater and lesser commitments to policing black movement in space and time," she maintains, "were united by a consensus among most slaveholders that enslaved people's movement must be severely limited" (25). The "policing" [End Page 187] of bondpeople was apparent in most aspects of Southern slaveholding, from plantation regulations to local and state legislation.
Some of Camp's conclusions are by no means novel. In fact, she derives many of the examples from familiar secondary sources. This observation is not a criticism of Camp's approach. On the contrary, her inventive perspective provides clarity to the existing literature particularly as it relates to gender. Camp's analysis of truancy, for example, illuminates gendered patterns of flight as she identifies "push" and "pull" factors that led to temporary absences. Gender altered men and women's ability to exercise their defiance, and in some cases it dictated the choices available to them.
In addition to truancy, Camp creatively shows how bondpeople resisted the geography of containment at "outlaw dances." "Enslaved partygoers," she writes, "had a common commitment to delight in their bodies, to display their physical skill, to master their bodies through competition with others, and to express their creativity" at arranged and illicit plantation dances (61). These dances and the ways bondpeople used their bodies, she argues, became the sites of socialization and resistance and a way to express a variety of emotions.
In an effort to enter the enslaved world, Camp literally brings readers into the cabin and bedroom of two bondwomen. In this space, she uncovers fragments of their ideology through abolitionist print material and an image of Abraham Lincoln displayed on their wall. Such discoveries alarmed members of the slaveholding class, challenging their notions of authority on the eve of the Civil War. Finding fragments of antislavery material in their bondpeoples' possession warned slaveholders that abolitionists' notions were not limited to Northern communities; these attitudes were sometimes evident on their estates, in their homes, and on the walls of their "property." Once the...