A Scathing Review of the Last History Book I Read

Historian Vanessa M. Holden’s Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community argues that the August 1831 slave uprising in Virginia commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion was in fact a community-wide rebellion involving black women, both free and unfree.[1] Holden writes that the event should be called the “Southampton Rebellion,” indicative of the county, for it “was far bigger than one man’s inspired bid for freedom.”[2] A community “produced [Turner]” and “the success of the Southampton Rebellion was the success of a community of African Americans.”[3] The scholar charts not only women’s everyday resistance prior to the revolt, participation in the uprising, and endurance of its aftermath, but also that of children. Sources are diverse, including early nineteenth-century books and Works Progress Administration interviews, and much material from archives at the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.[4] Holden is an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Kentucky; her work has appeared in several journals, but Surviving Southampton appears to be her first book.[5] Overall, it is one of mixed success, for while community involvement in the revolt is established, some of Holden’s major points suffer from limited evidence and unrefined rhetoric.

This is a work of — not contradictions, but oddities. Not fatal flaws, but sizable question marks. For a first point of critique, we can examine Holden’s second chapter, “Enslaved Women and Strategies of Evasion and Resistance.” While it considers enslaved women’s important “everyday resistance” such as “work stoppages, sabotage, feigned illness, and truancy,” plus the use of code and secret meetings, that occurred before the revolt, it offers limited examples of women’s direct participation in the Southampton Rebellion.[6] There are two powerful incidents. A slave named Charlotte attempted to stab a white owner to death, while Lucy held down a mistress at another farm to prevent her escape.[7] After the revolt was quelled, both were executed.[8] The chapter also details more minor happenings: Cynthia cooked for Nat Turner and the other men, Venus passed along information, and Ester, while also taking over a liberated household, stopped Charlotte from killing that owner, which one might describe as counterrevolutionary.[9] This is all the meaningful evidence that comprises a core chapter of the text. (It is telling that this chapter has the fewest citations.[10]) It is true that Holden seeks to show women’s participation in resistance before and after the Southampton Rebellion, not just during its three days. Looking at the entire book, this is accomplished. But to have so few incidents revealing women’s involvement in the central event creates the feeling that this work is a “good start,” rather than a finished product. And it stands in uncomfortable contrast to the language of the introduction.

Holden notes in the first few pages of Surviving Southampton that historians have begun adopting wider perspectives on slave revolts.[11] As with her work, there is increasing focus on slave communities, not just the men after whom the revolts are named. “However,” Holden writes, “even though new critiques have challenged the centrality of individual male enslaved leaders and argued for the inclusion of women in a broader definition of enslaved people’s resistance, violent rebellion remains the prerogative of enslaved men in the historiography.”[12] To scholars, Holden declares, “enslaved men rebel while enslaved women resist.”[13] She is of course right to challenge this gendered division. But a chapter 2 that is light on evidence does not suffice to fully address the problem. The rest of the book does not help much — chapter 3, on free blacks’ involvement in the revolt, features just one free woman of color, who testified, possibly under coercion, in defense of an accused rebel, stating that she had urged him not to join Turner.[14] Not exactly a revolutionary urging, though she was saving a man’s life in court, a resistive act. Charlotte and Lucy were certainly rebels, and one might describe those who provided nourishment, information, or legal defense to the men using the same phrasing, but more evidence is needed to strengthen the case. Holden’s women-as-rebels argument is not wrong, it just needs more support than two to five historical events.

The position would be further aided by excising or editing bizarre, undermining elements, such as a passage at the end of the second chapter. There is a mention of the “divergent actions of Ester and Charlotte,” followed by a declaration that “instead of labeling enslaved women as either for or against the rebellion, it is more useful to understand enslaved women as embedded in its path and its planning.”[15] It is fair to say that we cannot fully know Ester’s stance on the revolution — she could have been against it and saved that enslaver, or she could have been for it and taken the same action. We do not actually know if she was counterrevolutionary. But Charlotte’s violent action surely reveals an embrace of the revolt. It is at least a safe assumption. Is Holden’s statement not stripping female slaves of their agency? Not for nor against rebellion, just in its path, swept up in the events of men? How can women be rebels if they are not for the rebellion? Here we do have a contradiction, and not just of the introduction, for nine pages earlier in chapter 2 the author wrote: “Past histories of the Southampton Rebellion regard Ester and Charlotte’s story as anomalous and their actions as spontaneous. However, their motives were not different from those of male rebels.”[16] Here the women have agency, their revolutionary motives purportedly known. The attempted stabbing was “as much a part of the Southampton Rebellion” as anything else.[17] It is a strange shift from empowering Ester and enslaved women as freedom fighters to downplaying Charlotte and advising one not to mark women as for the rebellion.

Language is a consistent problem in the book, and this is intertwined with organization and focus issues. This is apparent from the beginning. First one reads the aforementioned pages of the introduction, where it is clear Holden wants to erase a gendered division in scholarship and lift the black woman to one who “rebels,” not simply “resists.” The reader may then sit up, turn the book over, and wonder about the subtitle: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. True, as we have seen, much of the text concerns everyday resistance before and after the uprising, but the fact that “rebellion” is not in the title instead is just slightly inconsistent with what Holden is rightly trying to do.

Similarly, look to an entire chapter that stands out as odd in a book allegedly focused on African American Women. Chapter 4 concerns children’s place in the Southampton Rebellion, and focuses almost exclusively on boys. In a short text — only 125 pages — an entire chapter is a significant portion. Why has Holden shifted away from women? Recall, returning to the introduction, that the University of Kentucky scholar aims to show that the revolt was a community-wide event. It was not solely defined by the deeds of men, nor women, nor slaves, nor freepersons — it also involved children, four of whom stood trial and were expelled from Virginia.[18] Here Surviving Southampton has a bit of an identity crisis. It cannot fully decide if it wants to focus on women or on the community as a whole. The title centers black women, as does Holden’s rebuke of the historiography for never framing women “as co-conspirators in violent rebellion…[only] as perpetrators of everyday resistance.”[19] Chapter 2 covers women to correct this. But the thesis has to do with the idea that “whole neighborhoods and communities” were involved.[20] Thus, the book has a chapter on children (boys), free black men alongside women, and so on. The subtitle of this work should have centered the entire community, not just women, and the introduction should have brought children as deeply into the historiographical review as women.

Finally, we turn to the author’s use of the phrases “geographies of evasion and resistance” and “geographies of surveillance and control.”[21] What this means is the how and where of oppressive tactics and resistive action. Geographies of resistance could include a slave woman’s bed, as when Jennie Patterson let a fugitive stay the night.[22] There existed a place (bed, cabin) and method (hiding, sheltering) of disobedience — this was a “geography.” Likewise, slave patrols operated at certain locations and committed certain actions, to keep slaves under the boot — a geography.[23] At times, Holden writes, these where-hows, these sites of power, would overlap.[24] The kitchen was a place of oppression and revolt for Charlotte.[25] Just as Patterson’s cabin was a geography of resistance, it was also one of control, as slave patrols would “visit all the negro quarters, and other places of suspected assemblies of unlawful assemblies of slaves…”[26] Thus, the scholar posits, blacks in Southampton County had to navigate these overlaps and use their knowledge of oppressive geographies “when deciding when and how to resist,” when creating liberatory geographies.[27]

As an initial, more minor point of critique, use of this language involves much repetition and redundancy. Repetitive phrasing spans the entire work, but can also be far more concentrated: “Enslaved women and free women of color were embedded in networks of evasion and resistance. They navigated layered geographies of surveillance and control. They built geographies of evasion and resistance. These women demonstrate how those geographies become visible in Southampton County through women’s actions.”[28] Rarely are synonyms considered. As an example of redundancy, observe: “These geographies of surveillance and control were present on individual landholdings, in the neighborhood where the rebellion took place, and throughout the country.”[29] Geographies were present? In other words, oppressive systems Holden bases on place were at places. There are many other examples of such things.[30]

The “geography of evasion and resistance” is not only raised ad nauseam, it seems to be a dalliance with false profundity.[31] It has the veneer of theory, but in reality little explanatory value. Of course oppressive systems and acts of rebellion operated in the same spaces; of course experience with and knowledge of the former informed the latter (and vice versa). This is far too trite to deserve such attention; it can be noted where appropriate, without fanfare. “Layered geographies of surveillance and survival” sounds profound, and its heavy use implies the same (note also that theory abhors a synonym), but it is largely mere description. Does the concept really help us answer questions? Does it actually deepen our understanding of what occurred in Patterson’s cabin or Charlotte’s kitchen? Of causes and effects? Does it mean anything more than that past experience (knowledge, actions, place) influences future experience, which is important to show in a work of history but is nevertheless a mere truism?

Granted, Holden never explicitly frames her “geography” as theory. But the historian consistently stresses its importance (“mapping” a resistive geography appears in the introduction and in the last sentence of the last chapter) and ascribes power to it.[32] After charting the ways enslaved women resisted before the rebellion, Holden writes: “Understanding the layered social and physical geography of slavery in Southampton and Virginia is important for understanding Black women’s roles in the Southampton Rebellion more broadly. Most remained firmly rooted to the farms where they labored as men visited rebellion on farm after farm late in the summer of 1831.”[33] Well, of course patterns — places, actions — of everyday resistance might foreshadow and inform women’s wheres and hows once Turner began his campaign. Elsewhere Holden notes that small farms and the nature of women’s work allowed female slaves greater mobility and proximity to white owners, a boon to resistance.[34] Women were “uniquely placed to learn, move through, and act within the layered physical and social geographies of each farm.”[35] Again, this is fancy language that merely suggests certain realities had advantages and could be helpful to future events. It goes no deeper, and it is truly puzzling that it is so emphasized. Such facts could have been briefly mentioned without venturing into the realm of theme and pseudo-theory.

Overall, Surviving Southampton deserves credit for bringing the participation of women, children, and free blacks in the 1831 uprising into the conversation. Our field’s understanding of this event is indeed broadened. But this would have been a much stronger work with further evidence and editing. Quality writing and sufficient proof are subjective notions, but that in no way diminishes their importance to scholarship. As it stands, this text feels like an early draft. Both general readers and history students should understand its limitations.

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[1] Vanessa Holden, Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021), 5-10. 

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 2, 6.

[4] Ibid., x, 132-134 for example.

[5] “Vanessa M. Holden,” The University of Kentucky, accessed March 2, 2023, ​​https://history.as.uky.edu/users/vnho222.

[6] Holden, Surviving Southampton, 23, 35.

[7] Ibid., 28, 36.

[8] Ibid., 37, 81.

[9] Ibid., 28, 36.

[10] Ibid., 132-134.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid., 52.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 79.

[19] Ibid., 6.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., chapter 1 for instance.

[22] Ibid., 24.

[23] Ibid., 12-22.

[24] Ibid., 12.

[25] Ibid., 28.

[26] Ibid., 20.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 37.

[29] Ibid., 8.

[30] See ibid., 9: “The generational position of Black children as the community of the future was culturally significant and a pointed concern for African American adults, whose strategies for resistance and survival necessarily accounted for these children. Free and enslaved Black children and youths were a significant part of their community’s strategies for resistance and survival.”

[31] The near-irony of this paper’s phrasing is not lost.

[32] Holden, Surviving Southampton, 8, 120.

[33] Ibid., 25.

[34] Ibid., 34-35.

[35] Ibid., 34.