This month marks the one-year anniversary of what members of the media and activists have named the resistance. In the past year, the resistance has taken many forms, from marches to town hall gatherings, and it has covered a range of issues, including women’s rights. Over the weekend, people around the nation rallied to commemorate the first anniversary of the Women’s March, which was energized by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
Lately, I’ve been reading about historical representations of resistance, in order to better understand what is required to effect change. My curiosity has been fueled by lesser-told stories of defiance that have not received enough attention in textbooks or other historical and cultural narratives. These practices of resistance have generally involved individual and shared acts of bravery and risk to life, rather than marches or rallies.
Historian Margaret MacMillan once said,
We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”
This particular moment in time offers an opportunity to carefully re-examine the prevailing historical narratives that have shaped modern society, as well as those that have been obscured by more dominant descriptions of history.
Here are a few historical accounts of resistance that have currently caught my attention.
Resistance by Enslaved Americans: Over the past several years, attention has rightly and increasingly focused on the need to clarify American history, particularly as it relates to the birth and legacy of slavery. Films like 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, have spurred interest in the voices of those directly affected by slavery. Northup’s memoir follows one man’s struggle for freedom, though many other individuals and communities rebelled against slavery in America. Between 1663 and 1859, uprisings included the Stono Rebellion, in which armed enslaved people attempted to march to freedom, the Amistad mutiny led by a West African man named Joseph Cinque, and the extensive Underground Railroad, in which abolitionist “conductors” like Harriet Tubman guided people to freedom.
To better understand the courage and resilience of those who lived through and escaped human bondage, I’ve recently turned to Colson Whitehead’s fiction novel The Underground Railroad and The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and William L. Andrews.
Jewish Resistance in German-Occupied Europe: Though Jews were Nazis’ primary victims in the era of the Holocaust, they also resisted Nazi oppression – including through armed resistance in Warsaw and other ghettos. After rumors emerged that the German army would deport children and adults remaining in the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, members of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) and other groups attacked German tanks. Even after the uprising, and defeat by the German army, resisters hid in the ghetto ruins while SS units patrolled the area.
Jewish prisoners also rose up against their captors within the killing centers at Treblinka and Sobibor. Though most captives were killed, some escaped and survived the war. One rebellion at Auschwitz-Birkenau was led by the Jewish Special Detachment (Sonderkommando). After the mutiny, in which hundreds of prisoners were killed, the SS identified and killed five women who supplied the Sonderkommando with explosives to blow up a crematorium.
There is so much more to read about this inconceivable chapter of world history. Here are two insightful though harrowing books on the topic: Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis by Patrick Henry and Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust: Moral Uses of Violence and Will by John Cox.
Native American Resistance to Colonization, Capture, and Genocide: The past and ongoing treatment of native people in North America represents a period of history still in need of reflection and reckoning. Non-Native voices have dominated historical narratives, and many exclude stories of resistance and rebellion by indigenous communities. Nonetheless, many individuals and groups of people have resisted colonization, confinement, and genocide – from the 1500s, around the time in which Europeans first set foot on American soil, to the early 1900s, when uprisings predominated in the southwest.
It’s worth noting that something deeply disturbing unites each of these periods of history, aside from any overlaps in time or atrocities. Each has been plagued by the myth that victims did little to resist their own kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and murder – false claims that ignore the very question of why they had to form any sort of resistance whatsoever. This shared myth also points to a grave pathology within our society – one that relates to why narratives about dominance and oppression so often prevail.
But if we are willing to come to terms with an often uncomfortable and violent human history that has made resistance necessary, we might also find answers to today’s challenges that so many are marching to resolve. In the course of doing so, we could learn how to resist systemic attempts to annihilate whole groups of individuals and better honor our human brothers and sisters, as well as our fellow nonhumans, who have all been wrecked by far too much violence on a planet with such incredible potential for peace.