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Enslaved people hoped to improve their lives in a number of ways. Some, a very small number in the grand scheme of things, hoped to gain freedom through open revolt or by simply running away. But these strategies, especially revolt, had very little chance of success. So the strategies most enslaved people used to improve their lives were less dramatic, perhaps, but no less powerful. Today, historians recognize ordinary, daily activities as a means of exercising slave agency, or power.
Enslaved people who broke tools, feigned illness, slowed down work, took breaks on the job, stole food from the kitchen or a hog from the pens were trying to improve their lives in ways that made sense to them. Indeed, these may have been the only options for them. Still others tried to learn to read, often soliciting the help (as Frederick Douglass did) of a benevolent master. Many turned to religion, shaping Christianity and its teachings to meet their own realities. Others picked up a trade like carpentry or metal work, and in cities at least, many of these skilled people were allowed to work for cash when they had completed their duties at home. Most plantation slaves tended gardens that they used to supplement their diets, and some even sold their surpluses. Many ingratiated themselves to their owners in an attempt to win benefits for themselves and their loved ones.
Above all, many enslaved people looked to family and community as a means of resisting the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. They tried desperately, often without success to hold their families together, and even to expand the meaning of family, in the face of the realities of the market. Ultimately, slavery was a human institution, and the ways the humans trapped within it tried to improve their lives depended largely on the individual and their circumstances.
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