As discussed, the road towards freedom for Africans in America has been long and arduous. Success has been marginal. Many of our best and brightest have had their light extinguished much too early. Some died in the heat of battle, some cut down by an assassin’s bullet, some captured, tortured and locked away and some took their own lives as an ultimate act of sacrifice and statement of protest. Suicide is often a difficult and sometimes taboo subject to deal with. However, certain African American artists have stepped up in dynamics ways.
Literary artists, for example, have worked to deliver the grimy details of what it means to be African in America and how that affects a diverse array of people. Some have given special attention to suicide because of the conditions African in American have lived under. In Toni Morrison’s stories, for instance, thoughts of suicide are expressed deeply and in thick and complex ways. By extension, and once again in celebration of all forms or protest taken to achieve freedom, this essay will review suicide as an act of resistance against oppression with discussion of Igbo Landing.
For some, the notion of suicide is unthinkable. Even in the face of suffering, many times it is seen as necessary to endure suffering. However, the Igbo people (primarily originating from present-day Nigeria) in particular are known for their open mindset towards suicide. According to particular narratives of enslaved Africans, many Igbos embraced suicide as a way out of suffering and “wished to die on the idea that they should then get back to their own country.” This notion was put to the test sometime in the spring of 1803. To explain, in 1803 an ironically named slaver ship, the Wanderer, set sail with a full compliment of Igbo captives bound for the Americas. The ship arrived and disembarked in Savannah, Georgia where the cargo of shackled humans were sold to a St. Simons Island Plantation owner. Whilst en route to the Georgian Island the captives liberated themselves by taking control of the ship and killing their captors. Shortly after seizing control of the vessel, the self-liberated Africans ran the ship ashore in Dunbar Creek. Then, in seemingly ritualistic fashion, the former captives disembarked from the ship and walked together into the creek to drown themselves.
To provide more clarity for this issue, the article “Slave Suicide, Abolition and the Problem of Resistance” by Richard Bell lends some insight. The author asks: “Was a slave’s suicide an act of principled resistance to tyranny that challenged the hypocrisy of the revolutionary settlement? Or was it a measure of abject victimhood that begged for humanitarian intervention?” Bell poses this either/or dialectic to the problem of suicide among enslaved Africans; however, perhaps in this case both perspectives posed by Bell are equally relevant. That is to say, for an enslaved person, desperation is the modus operandi: it is the feeling that cradles the oppressed in their sleep and the sentiment that greets them in the morning. Living with that feeling makes suicide for the oppressed both an act of defiance and empowerment.
To continue, suicide is a powerful conclusion for a soul twisted by hate, desperation, hopelessness and loneliness. It is not the easy way out nor a coward’s last cry for help; is it however, an act of a person taking their own life – their destiny – into their own hands. Simply put, it is an act of power. An enslaved person has no power. They cannot eat, sleep, learn or love without the permission of their enslaver. But, when that enslaved person (or any tortured soul) decides to end their life, they strip their oppressor of any power they had over them. The enslaver can no longer use their slave’s body frivolously, they can no longer beat it, force it to do work or rape it. As well, any monetary value that the slave’s body had as a worker or a commodity is now gone, and that person whom used to be enslaved to now free.
Terry Synder argues “Self-destruction in the context of North American slavery has been overlooked in part, because of the problematic nature of all evidence for suicide. We simply cannot know how many enslaved persons - or even free people – chose suicide in early modern America. Because no systematic public accounting of deaths was undertaken when slaves were domestically dispersed, traded, and resold on the North American mainland, suicide figures for disembarkation are difficult to ascertain.” The difficulties in studying this history only highlight the importance of the work. That is to say, more work needs to be done within this field of study as part of an effort to provide a deeper understanding of the mind and spirit of the enslaved.
In sum, suicide can be an odd phenomenon to study because of the personal nature of the act. As well, cultural nuances can make the study of suicide difficult because of how particular people understand the act. For some it is taboo; and yet for others there is empowerment in the process and act of suicide. However, what is the same from culture-to-culture, is that suicide is a deeply human act. Further, it is a human act in which the actor is no more and cannot be questioned or queried about after the deed is done; thus, the difficulties. Nevertheless, with the emptiness that is left behind when one (or a group) commits themselves to the act of self-destruction, those of us still amongst the living can commit ourselves to understanding the human(s) who committed that act and their reasons. Such a commitment will inevitably help us as a species have a deeper understanding of ourselves.
 Terri L. Snyder. "Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America." The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (2010): 39-62. For example, here are narratives of mothers throwing themselves over the side of slave ships whilst clutching their young, just to keep their babies from experiencing the hell that awaited them. As well, authors such as Toni Morrison have dealt with this subject intimately.
 Here are some other instances of suicide among the enslaved in African American Literature: Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, James Baldwin's Another Country, Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Dawn Turner Trice's Only Twice I've Wished for Heaven, Shay Youngblood's Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery
 Katy Ryan. "Revolutionary Suicide in Toni Morrison's Fiction." African American Review 34, no. 3 (2000): 389-412. The author argues: “In Beloved (1988), a woman jumps overboard during the Middle Passage; in Jazz (1992), Violet's mother, Rose Dear, climbs into a well, drowning herself in 1892; in Sula (1973), the shell-shocked veteran Shadrack institutes National Suicide Day on 3 January 1920; on the opening page of Song of Solomon (1977), Robert Smith leaps from the top of Mercy Hospital on 18 February 1931; in The Bluest Eye (1970), Pecola Breedlove wills self-disappearance through a longing to possess the eyes of another face. Toni Morrison.” To add to Ryan’s discussion of Beloved: in this story, the mother of Beloved, Sethe, killed the child very soon after she was born. Though, this is technically murder, it can be argued the essence of a suicide was presented well by Morrison. That is to say, Sethe sacrificed a large part of herself, Beloved, so that her child would not have to experience the horrors of enslavement.
 Malcolm Cowley and Daniel Mannix. The Middle Passage. Atlantic Slave Trade, Ed. David Northrup. (Lexington: Heath, 1994), 99-112.
 BlackPast.org – Remembered and Reclaimed. Igbo Landing Mass Suicide (1803). http://www.blackpast.org/aah/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803. Accessed July 2018. Igbos were known to be fiercely independent people who were extremely resistant to the practice of chattel slavery in the Americas.
 BlackPast.org – Remembered and Reclaimed. Igbo Landing Mass Suicide (1803). http://www.blackpast.org/aah/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803. Accessed July 2018. This mass-suicide had a number of witnesses who provided testimony. After this incident, during the ensuing investigation, only 13 Igbo bodies were recovered. It is believed that the other bodies may have washed out to sea.
 Richard Bell. "Slave suicide, abolition and the problem of resistance." Slavery & Abolition 33, no. 4 (2012): 525-549.
 Terri L. Snyder. "Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America." The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (2010): 40.
 “Suicide Among Slaves: A Very Last Resort”. National Humanities Center Research Toolbox – The Making of African American Identity: Vol. 1, 1500-1865. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/emancipation/text2/suicide.pdf. Accessed July 2018. Discussion of suicide from these narratives are mainly from the early 20th century, however they highlight some of the sentiment behind suffering and slavery.
Leave a Reply.