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Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South.

Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. By Stephanie M. H. Camp. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 173. $18.95.)

This is a slender volume comprised of 141 pages of text that are organized into five chapters. After canvassing slave narratives, Southern travel accounts, plantation records, letters, and an occasional statute or court case, Stephanie M. H. Camp looks past the ordinary in hopes of discovering the extraordinary by identifying resistance to slavery in everyday life.

Camp's initial chapter, "A Geography of Containment," explores the struggle between the enslaver and the enslaved over the use of space and time. She begins with the proposition that the "heart" of enslavement was an attempt "to locate bondpeople in plantation space" and to "control ... their movements and activities," noting that men often had more flexibility than women (12, 28). She invokes the analogies of being a prisoner of war or of being confined in jail.

In her second chapter, Camp recounts numerous incidents of women leaving their "place" on the plantation for temporary respites in forbidden areas such as woods, swamps, or towns. These were not attempts to secure permanent freedom, but a more temporary break in the confinement of slavery by "truants" or "absentees" (35).

Although some truants were motivated to escape punishment, others left their confinement to visit relatives (husbands and children), to gather herbs for medicine, to have time alone, or to participate in social events. In spite of punishment, truancy was prevalent, especially in the lower South. These actions were disruptive to the slave system, demonstrating a certain powerlessness of slaveholders and some autonomy on behalf of the enslaved, and resulted in loss of work to the enslaver. Camp views this as a series of continuous conflicts between slaveholder and the enslaved over geography that "were preludes to escape that lay a few decades ahead" (59).

Subsequent chapters take the same approach in exploring the ways enslaved people used secret meetings and parties, the wearing of prohibited clothing, the consumption of alcohol, and homes and private property to mount resistance (60-61, 116). The fifth chapter focuses on the relationship between freedom of movement during the Civil War and open defiance as the Union Army moved ever closer (117).

Camp brings to life ways that the conduct of those held in slavery may have undermined the institution of slavery. Yet a hint of one of the weaknesses of the work may be identified in the editor's summary of the book on the back jacket-cover, which indicates that Camp "discusses the multiple dimensions to acts of resistance that might otherwise appear to be little more than fits of temper." When is an act that functionally undermines the authority of slaveholders a "fit of temper" and when is it an act of resistance? This question goes unanswered.

Yet, this is an interesting book and should be of value to anyone interested in the scholarship of slavery.

Richard L. Aynes

University of Akron

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Author:Aynes, Richard L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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