Resistance, Racialized Violence, and Database Design

As Matthew Davis explains, a database is useful as a methodological tool because it does not permit ambiguity. This means that all decisions must be documented and justified.[1] To create the schema for my database, I have already made important decisions about what data to extract from my primary documents – the Slave Narrative Collection, the first-person testimony culled from the Ku Klux Klan hearings, and the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Extracting some data does not require significant forethought, such as bibliographic information, dates, or geographic locations. Other data, however, require clearly defined keywords and a rigid workflow. When inputting data on incidents of racialized violence, for example, I must decide how to code types of violence. This issue will be the subject of my upcoming talk at the Graduate Colloquium on 26 April 2018. It is also necessary, however, to define resistance. Recently, there has been a proliferation of scholarship on resistance. But scholars have often failed to define resistance in any systematic way. This poses a challenge for creating a database that requires a concrete definition to ensure consistency. Where resistance is loosely defined, it is possible to see it almost everywhere and nowhere. This blog post, then, will outline how I define resistance.

According to Jocelyn Hollander and Rachel Einwohner, resistance has been variously defined as questioning and objecting, engaging in behaviour despite opposition, and opposing abusive behaviour and control.[2] For my purposes, resistance can be understood as an action that results from a conscious decision to thwart attempts at subjugation.[3] Resistance can be further defined as either formal or informal. Formal resistance refers to actions that are organized and conspicuous, whereas informal resistance refers to actions that are unorganized and clandestine. For most of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, resistance to racialized violence was informal; African Americans relied on clandestine actions with limited risk of reprisal. My dissertation, therefore, is primarily concerned with informal resistance.

To demonstrate the utility of my definition, let us briefly consider an example. Lizzie Atkins, a black woman, stole chickens and potatoes from a white household. In an interview with the Federal Writers’ Project, Atkins admitted that she had committed the theft to compensate for her diminished capacity in southern society.[4] Because Atkins clearly stated her intentions, we must consider the theft to be resistance. Had Atkins stolen for the sole purpose of nourishment, however, we might not consider the theft to be resistance. Where intention is not clear, it is necessary to approach with caution. For James Scott, the theft of food may have represented an assertion of the right to subsistence, but it may also just have been about providing nourishment.[5] It is important, therefore, not to assume an act of resistance where intention is unclear.

Below I have included a selection of keywords (along with the definitions) used in my database to code methods of resistance. This list is not exhaustive and it is subject to revision and expansion as my research progresses.

  • Theft – The most common form of resistance in the workplace was arguably theft. Like many methods of informal resistance, theft was originally used by enslaved people to retaliate against unfair treatment by masters. In the postemancipation South, black domestic workers embraced the tradition of theft by engaging in pan-toting (bringing home leftovers and other foodstuffs). From the point of view of oppressed African Americans, theft was a strategy to compensate for lost wages or mistreatment.
  • Discursive Insubordination – African Americans frequently expressed their discontent through a variety of verbal confrontations.[6] This resistance manifested primarily as a rich catalogue of humour with which black people mocked racial violence; however, it also included music, taunts, and general denunciations of racialized violence.
  • Testimony – African Americans resisted racialized violence by testifying about their experiences. In 1871, for example, black people from across the South testified at the Ku Klux Klan hearings regarding the violence they endured and witnessed. Such testimony indicates that African Americans wanted to challenge their attackers by recording their experiences as part of the public record. Testimony can be understood as a variation of discursive insubordination, as those who testified were not merely giving statements but resisting violence discursively.
  • Burial Rites – Resistance sometimes manifested as burial rites for the victims of racialized violence. It was not uncommon for the victims of extraordinary violence – especially lynching – to be left on display as a warning. Sometimes the victims would even be put on display with written notes forbidding any kind of burial. In these situations, providing a proper burial could be an act of resistance. Without the attention of African Americans, many victims of racialized violence would not have received burial rites.
  • Protection – African Americans often tried to protect each other from targeted attacks by standing between the attackers and their victims, both figuratively and literally. The perpetrators of racialized violence, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, frequently launched their attacks with a specific victims in mind. Those not being targeted might intervene, blocking doorways and claiming that the victim was away from home. Black women, in particular, often answered the door at night to protect their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers.
  • Self Defense – In the face of overwhelming violence, many African Americans responded in equal measure. Self defense took on a variety of forms, including armed resistance undertaken by large groups. It was not uncommon, however, for black individuals, sometimes aided by family members, to take up arms in defense of their own lives. The primary goal of armed self-defense was to ward off bloodshed.
  • Migration – Many African Americans made the decision to relocate as a result of racialized violence. In some instances, this meant relocating from the countryside to urban areas where there was greater protection against the Ku Klux Klan. In other instances, this meant abandoning the South entirely to settle in the North. Migration can be understood as a variation on self-defense, as in some situations it was the only way for African Americans to protect themselves.

[1] Matthew E. Davis, “The Database as a Methodological Tool,” Digital Medievalist, 10 August 2017,

[2] Jocelyn A. Hollander and Rachel L. Einwohner, “Conceptualizing Resistance,” Sociological Forum 19, no. 4 (December 2004): 533–554.

[3] The defining feature of an act of resistance is the intention behind it. In order to qualify as an act of resistance, the individual acting must intend for their action to oppose subjugation. Resistance is not contingent on the oppressor recognizing it; instead, agency is given to the individual resisting.

[4] George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplementary Series 2, Volume 2, Part 1 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977), 101.

[5] James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 291.

[6] I have borrowed the term ‘discursive insubordination’ from W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “The Roar on the Other Side of Silence: Black Resistance and Racial Violence in the American South, 1880-1940,” in Under the Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 274.

Sarah Whitwell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. Her research explores the efforts of black women to resist racialized violence in the postemancipation South. You can find her on twitter: @whitwese

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