What does Black freedom look like today? What will Black freedom look like in the future? As with most endeavors, a glimpse into the past is necessary. Events of revolt and liberation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century show us the ways that resistance took on a subtle, less obvious nature — through rest, through refusal.
I want to offer the idea that Black liberation can exist in the idea of rest as resistance. How is stillness or voluntary immobility a form of resistance? Essentially, because Black people — historically but even today — are trying to live in a system deliberately designed to extract as much labor and time out of us as possible. The simple act of resting is a way of saying no more.
Rest as resistance has deep and powerful roots in the US. In the plantation South, everyday forms of resistance included running away from the plantation. Of the many aspects of slave life that Southern planters controlled, the literal movement of an enslaved person was probably one of the most important. The maintenance of Southern agriculture and planters’ livelihood was largely dependent upon the compliance of bonds-people. Enslaved people often disrupted this structure through truancy. Everyday forms of resistance, whether theft, reluctant or deliberate “foot-dragging”, or short-term flight, were discreet ways of reclaiming humanity and control of one’s life.
These often overlooked but significant bouts of resistance were, if not a direct hit to the economic structure of slavery, an intentional grasp of what was so often denied to them; aspects of their humanity. I argue that Black freedom starts with agency over one’s humanity — freedom to access and exhibit the full range of human emotion and intuition.
The ownership of enslaved people gave White men a comfortable, wealthy lifestyle, in which they could be their own boss. So, when an enslaved person, who exerted the labor necessary to maintain the profitable nature of a plantation ran away, it took a strike at the master’s livelihood. In other words, planters realized that every act of truancy “played with their money.” Indeed, the severest of the punishment given to truants showed the planter’s fear of losing such livelihood — causing them to initiate a tighter grip on the enslaved. Yet and still, enslaved people found whatever ways they could to rest, to resist, to regain proximity to their humanity.
I imagine the gratification experienced by directing one’s own foot in front of the other in the direction chosen by the enslaved, who up until that point, had only experienced constant restraint. The degree to which truants were punished upon return to the plantation shows us how important these “reliefs” were to bonds-people that they would anticipate such brutal punishments in exchange for a few days, weeks, or months away from the plantation and its tasks.
Planters controlled the movement of slaves so much so that they even used parties as a tool of social control. These parties held by the masters were “supposed to control Black pleasure by allowing it periodic, approved expression”. The master’s presence maintained the repressive nature of these frolics. Enslaved people were encouraged to essentially assure the master of their obedience through their attendance.
But while the independent gathering of slaves was banned, bonds people still snuck outside of plantation borders and neighboring woods to participate in their own religious and social gatherings. The claim to enslaved people’s mobility through acts of truancy and organization of secret social gatherings demonstrates that slaves resisted in ways that preserved their humanity. We can draw a direct line from times of bondage to today through these radical acts of Black joy, rest, and community in the face of oppression and violence. It is a deeply simple but powerful phenomenon that we can and must honor as an act of Black liberation.
For Black folk, rest is and has always been a radical act of resistance. Black liberation isn’t all about organizing and direct actions all the time, but claiming humanity through rest and acknowledgement of limitations and honoring them is a slight to the demands of the “capitalistic hustle culture” today. In a culture which keeps Black and Brown folk at the margins, which ensures that the rich get richer from the labor of the marginalized, which feeds us the idea that we have to work twice as hard to even get half, rest is an intentional act. After all, being resilient shouldn’t mean being superhuman.
Rest is resistance, and it should be a part of your organization’s culture. Want to know how? Get in touch with our Equity Innovation team today.