Neither Black Nor White: The Complex Concept of Freedom in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs’ moving text Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an incredible narrative chronicling the story of a slave named Linda and her resilient fight for freedom. However, as she takes us through her journey, we come to see that the concept of freedom is by no means a clear-cut, either-or entity. She associates the idea of freedom with different things throughout her journey: religion, certain places, the economy, even people, and through these different definitions and explorations, by the last chapter it becomes clear that freedom by no means has a singular definition. Rather, freedom is a process, a flexible concept, and a strong mindset, all of which are clearly exhibited throughout Linda’s journey.

A recurring theme throughout Jacobs’ text is religion and Christianity. She includes many biblical allusions, references to Christianity, and other mentions of God, church, and prayer, however, they are not the wholly reverential, spiritual, and positive references that one might expect. Linda clearly struggles with the meaning of religion and the role that it plays in her life. For her, it seems to be more of a process, rather than an object—not only is it inconsistent, but Jacobs articulates her experiences with slaveholders using Christianity and religion to legitimize the horrors they inflicted, and how they often manipulated the words of the Bible and religion to assert their authority. “[The slaveholders] seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves. What a libel upon the heavenly Father, who “made of one blood all nations of men!” (40) Linda’s references to religion become increasingly bitter, as she begins to use the word ‘Christian’ in a sarcastic manner. “As Mrs. Flint went out,” Linda tells us, “Sally told her the reason Benny was lame was, that a dog had bitten him. ‘I’m glad of it,’ replied she. ‘I wish he had killed him. It would be good news to send to his mother. Her day will come. The dogs will grab her yet.’ With these Christian words, she and her husband departed,” (103). In Linda’s story, “Christian” is used sarcastically, highlighting the acrimony that Linda feels about the role both religion and Christianity play in slavery. “I supposed,” Linda reveals, “that religion had a purifying effect on the character of men; but the worst persecutions I endured from him were after he was a communicant,” (65). Her negative reaction to religion seems completely legitimate when we see how religion itself is used as the foundation for her own enslavement. As confusing and contradictory as the idea of religion becomes in this text, the fact that it is associated with freedom actually highlights the similarities between the two. Religion is something that often provides escape or solace in the midst of difficulty, however; in this case it is used as a vehicle to enforce Linda’s own enslavement and thus is an impediment on her road to freedom. Connecting religion to freedom in this way is an important piece of evidence in proving that both ideas are flexible, inconsistent, and very much up to interpretation.

The idea of freedom is explored not just through Linda’s relationship with religion, but she also comes to associate freedom with specific places throughout her journey, with the meaning of freedom changing as she moves from place to place. She resides in many different physical places throughout the text—starting in North Carolina, she eventually flees to Philadelphia, then New York, then moves to Boston, then to England, then back to Boston, and finally the story concludes with the possibility of a move far west to California. Harriet Jacobs talks about freedom in terms of places in a very abstract, intriguing way. One might assume just from hearing about the physical towns, cities, and states Linda experiences on her journey, that the story will automatically paint the southern places and northern places very differently. Though it is true that Linda sees the ‘north’ as a place of freedom while still living in her North Carolina town, her arrival in Philadelphia, then New York, and into Boston, do not automatically present her with the complete freedom that she was expecting. North Carolina itself is obviously the place providing the roots of Linda’s enslavement, but it also is the place where she first embarks on her road to freedom, escaping from Dr. Flint and hiding out for years under his nose. After sitting in limbo between confinement and freedom still in North Carolina, Linda finally is able to escape by boat and is in awe upon her arrival in Philadelphia. “At daylight I heard women crying fresh fish, berries, radishes, and various other things. All this was new to me. I dressed myself at an early hour, and sat at the window to watch that unknown tide of life. Philadelphia seemed to me a wonderfully great place” (134). However, she comes to realize that the ‘north’—Philadelphia, then New York, then Boston—are not the free cities of her dreams. She is constantly worried about being recognized, re-captured, and brought back into slavery, and with Jim Crow and the Fugitive Slave Law, she comes to the realization that there isn’t as much of a difference between the north and south as she initially thought, holed up in North Carolina at the beginning of her perilous journey. Yet again, we see freedom compared to these places in the same nuanced sense of religion. These places are neither completely free nor completely confining, and arguments could be made about which places are better than the others. However, Linda’s continued movement from place to place and desire to keep working towards gaining more freedom for herself and her children highlights the adaptable and inconsistent nature of freedom.

Though many slaves achieved freedom through economic means—whether they somehow came up with enough money over their lifetime to buy themselves, or whether someone else bought their freedom for them—Linda does not believe that she should have to purchase her freedom. She comes to this realization as she matures through her journey and experiences. Early on in her story, she consoles her brother, lamenting that they will “have to stay here all our days,” and hopelessly complaining, “’we shall never be free.’” Linda, however, responded by arguing, “that we were growing older and stronger, and that perhaps we might, before long, be allowed to hire our own time, and then we could earn money to buy our freedom” (12). After enduring so many hardships and experiencing so much along her journey to freedom, however, Linda realizes and solidifies her belief in her own natural right to freedom—something that she, or anyone else, should have to buy. When Mr. Dodge, in the final chapter, arrives in New York to try and get Linda back, her friend tells him, “’I have heard her say she would go to the ends of the earth, rather than pay any man or woman for her freedom, because she thinks she has a right to it’” (161). This shift in Linda’s confidence and mindset about her own right to freedom reaches towards the point that freedom is a process in developing a certain mindset. It is not about reaching a certain physical place, or paying a specific amount of money—it is about having the strength, will, and belief in your own humanity to make the sacrifices to work toward ones own liberty. Throughout her journey, Linda associates the idea of freedom with many different people. Her grandmother is one of the first people she describes as ‘free,’ and thus her grandmother plays a large part in the road to her own freedom—housing her, helping her escape, and ensuring the safety of her children, among other things. Her grandmother simultaneously seems to represent a sense of freedom, but Linda also clearly associates her with enslavement and confinement as well, given that she was essentially trapped her home in North Carolina for many years, in limbo between freedom and enslavement.

Linda also discusses the idea of freedom in accordance with her master, Dr. Flint. His manipulative, cruel, and predatory nature was described in detail, and though he technically offers Linda “a home and freedom” (70), she concedes that she “knew that my master’s offer was a snare, and that if I entered it escape would be impossible…if he gave me free papers, they would be so managed as to have no legal value…even if I should kneel before him, and implore him to spare me, for the sake of my children, I knew he would spurn me with his foot, and my weakness would be his triumph” (71). For Linda, there is no achievement of freedom where Dr. Flint is concerned, and as the slave owner, comes to represent the absolute antithesis of freedom. “I had always been kindly treated,” Linda notes, “until I came into the hands of Dr. Flint. I had never wished for freedom until then” (96). This highlights an interesting idea—though Dr. Flint characterizes the opposite of freedom, it is his emergence into Linda’s life that gave her the first hopes of realizing her own freedom. Finally, the people that are most associated with freedom in Linda’s story are her children. They serve as the ultimate motivation for her to continue on her path, and she mentions them and her commitment to their liberation every step of the way. “I was dreaming of freedom…more for my children’s sake than my own,” she admitted. “I could have made my escape alone; but it was more for my helpless children than for myself that I longed for freedom…every trial I endured, every sacrifice I made for their sakes, drew them closer to my heart, and gave me fresh courage to beat back the dark waves that rolled and rolled over me in a seemingly endless night of storms” (70). Linda’s heartening dedication to her children and the passion they inspire within her point to the root of the relationship between people and freedom.

Even with Dr. Flint, who essentially represents the institution of slavery itself, Linda still used him as a person to motivate her on her journey to achieve freedom. Her grandmother and children play similar roles, showing us the reasoning behind the resilient mindset that forms the definition of freedom in this story. Linda’s unwavering strength, will, belief, and desire to achieve freedom for herself and for the sake of her children follows her into the final chapter of her story. The final chapter of Incidents represents the continued struggle that characterizes freedom. The story ends without her achievement of outright, unadulterated liberty, as she announces that her “story ends with freedom…I and my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slaveholders as are the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition.” However, as Linda’s journey proves to us; the institution of slavery does not allow for one to ever really have that pure, complete sense of freedom. “The dream of my life is not yet realized,” she tells us, “I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. I wish it for my children’s sake far more than my own” (164). By the last chapter, Linda has not attained the social, economic, or political freedom she had hoped for, but the hardships she faced throughout her journey did not sway her or stop her on her way to still trying to achieve a sense of autonomy.

Jacobs shows us that freedom, rather than being a tangible, physical, black-or-white entity, is a mindset. As we see through her exploration of freedom and its relation to religion, places, the economy, and people, it becomes clear that there is no clear-cut definition. Rather, freedom is the process, the journey, the decision to keep moving forward toward a better life for herself and her children. Freedom, as it relates to these different entities, is malleable, inconsistent, and largely intangible—like the interpretation of religion, or the unclear status of places in the north and south, or the cost of humans, or the people who are a part of Linda’s journey. She has achieved some freedom, but the road has by no means come to an end—thus, it is a continuous journey requiring the resilient mindset that Linda so explicitly exhibits.

Works Cited

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

Freedom and Gender: Complex Contradictions in Douglass and Jacobs

The word “freedom” in early American history was one with innumerable meanings, depending on who was hearing it. To a white male in the 19th century, freedom was prosperity through land-owning and wealth. However, to a slave in the Antebellum period, freedom was undefinable and out of reach. In the cases of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, as evidenced by their autobiographies, gaining freedom from their masters was just the beginning of their liberation as human beings in a rapidly changing society. Both of these outspoken, intelligent abolitionist writers paved a way for themselves, and thousands of other African-Americans, through the power of their words. Freedom to a slave was not only physical, but psychological, and the transition from enslavement to empowerment was one defined by personal willpower and endurance. Frederick Douglass, in his narrative, details the horrors of southern slavery and its violations on the human mind and body; Harriet Jacobs is able to fill in the gaps, as a female slave, by describing the sexual exploitation and emotional torment women and families were forced to encounter during slavery. Slave narratives are the clearest insight historians have into the daily reality of slavery; both Douglass and Jacobs show through their personal accounts that the complex institution of slavery could be effectively combatted through morality, literacy, passion, and by turning personal travesties into a hope that all people could experience the intricately complex gift of freedom. In the words of Harriet Jacobs, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction” .

Unsure of his birth year, Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in what historians have guessed to be the 1818. It wasn’t uncommon for a slave to be uncertain of the exact date on which he or she was born- it was also likely that slaves had to consult their owners for this information, as families were often separated. Family separation was one of the countless hardships that a slave had to endure during his time as a slave (which, in some cases, would be their entire lives). Frederick Douglass’s biography details these horrors not only to invoke sympathy, but to reveal the ugly truths of slavery in hopes that change would be brought about. One of the most strikingly horrific scenes in his narrative depicts one of his cruel masters, Caption Anthony, whipping one of his slaves, an aunt of Frederick Douglass, in the middle of the night. He would frequently wake up to the sound of “heart-rending shrieks” as the slaveowner barbarically beat the woman while she was naked and tied to a post. Douglass remarks that “no words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” . These incidents would happen frequently, in addition to the daily stressors a slave would endure, including hunger, sickness, exhaustion, and a lack of proper clothing. Female slaves also had to fear the sexual exploitation of their bodies by their masters, a topic Harriet Jacobs discusses in her own personal narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Frederick Douglass’s narrative was designed not only to recount the atrocities of his life as a slave, but also to create discomfort amongst white people of society through the sheer rawness of his story. The Antebellum period was characterized by a strong presence of Christianity that influenced much of society, and even reached slave communities. Frederick Douglass had an understanding of what it meant to be a Christian even though he grew up enslaved. In his early 20s, Douglass was the slave of a Baltimore resident named Thomas Auld. Douglass reports that his master attended Methodist services, and he “indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves” and “make him more kind and humane”, though he was “disappointed in both these respects” . In the eyes of the oppressed, a churchgoing man that was capable of treating his slaves with severe cruelty had a huge moral incongruity; Frederick Douglass pointed out in his narrative that society seemed unable to recognize this discrepancy. The concepts included in the Declaration of Independence- liberty, freedom, and natural rights- are equally ingrained in the Christian religion, yet somehow this doesn’t cause the upper class to reject the immorality of slavery under a religious inclination. Later in his biography, he addresses his criticism of religion, saying “to be the friend of one [Christianity] is to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” . This hypocrisy is what inspired many of Douglass’s arguments in his later career as an abolitionist and writer. Editor and history professor David W. Blight comments on his efforts, saying that if “the hearts and minds of the American people were first to be persuaded of the evil of slavery, then the laws and political structure would change” . If Douglass could point out this contradiction to the general public, then perhaps their guilt could pave a way for structural change.

Like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs also published a personal narrative that provided insight into the wide range of atrocities a slave experienced in their lifetime. Both authors developed a strong literate mind that would help them to become free, not only in the physical sense, but spiritually and in every other sense of the word. A key difference between the lives of these two fugitive slaves turned reformers is based on one minor yet significant detail- their gender. Editor Jennifer Fleischner, in her introduction of Jacobs’s narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, comments that “although Harriet’s story is an example of the power of an individual to struggle against persecution, it is also the example of the importance of a strong family network and a supportive community in battling oppression” . Harriet Jacobs effectively introduces a female slave’s quest for liberation by starting her story with a reflection on the innocence of her adolescence. Jacobs was “born a slave; but never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away” . Her discovery that, to the entire white population, she and her entire family were considered property, was an incredibly jarring one, and she began to experience things that only a female slave would endure. Harriet Jacobs brought two mixed-race children into the world with a free white man that her master forbade her to marry. One of these children was a female. Jacobs said, in light of the birth of her daughter, “slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible to women” . Even the joys of motherhood were inhibited by the gross institution of slavery. Jacobs also had to experience firsthand the sexual advances of a lustful slaveowner, though she was fortunate enough that he never forced himself upon her. This, by no means, meant he never physically harmed her. Upon hearing the news of her pregnancy, he cut off all her hair in a fit of rage and struck her when she tried to protest. The damage was so so severe that she was bedridden for days afterwards. Sexism is a pressing issue in society even today. For a woman in the 19th century that was legally considered property, objectification was an extreme problem that left significant emotional damage on Harriet Jacobs, yet inspired her to work towards freedom for all, especially families that were complicated by the issue of slavery.

The struggles Harriet Jacobs had to endure to reach a place of empowerment is a story that is still relevant to women today, who are constantly objectified. Harriet Jacobs lived her entire life, as both a slave and a free woman, oppressed on two accounts- her race and her gender. This is why she dedicated so much of her later life to abolition work through her writing, as a way to “assert her humanity against the inhumanity of slavery” . Like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs recognized the hypocrisy in a society that valued religion, human rights, and domesticity, yet felt comfortable enslaving an entire race of people and subjecting their women and children to sexual harassment, abuse, and neglect. In letters to a trusted friend, Jacobs comments on her reasoning behind documenting her life story, and expresses her desires that the effects of her narrative would benefit women and children still suffering as slaves. Jacobs writes, “[I] come to you just as I am a poor slave Mother- not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen- and what I have suffered- and if there is any sympathy to give- let it be given to the thousands- of… Slave Mothers that are still in bondage- suffering far more than I have… for their helpless Children that they may enjoy the same liberties that my Children now enjoy” . Harriet Jacobs sought a very specific emotional reaction from society following the publication of her narrative. Though she wrote using pseudonyms, she did not attempt to hide her identity as an author during her career as an abolitionist. Her words as an author could be clearly linked to her motives as a reformer. Harriet Jacobs strategically used her brand as an African-American female to break down a society that was intended to work against her, making her a perfect example of self-made liberation.

Slavery was disgusting. It was cruel, unconstitutional, immoral, brutal, sexist, and racist. Any slave narrative, like those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, will express the same sentiment. The words written in these slave narratives, both at the time of publication and even still today, leave a profound impact on the reader, causing them to question their own values and reflect on their own experiences. As painful as it was for Douglass and Jacobs to recall their experiences as slaves through writing, firsthand documentation of slavery was necessary to the advancement of society and the eventual abolition of slavery. When analyzed together, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl give a shocking illustration of the reality of slavery, both as a whole, and for individual men, women, and children. Their lives as fugitive slaves, writers, abolitionists, and important political figures helped to inspire societal change and promote the message that true and complete liberation is a journey with a destination that is more of a state of being than a physical place. Freedom is found through willpower, literacy, and a passion that drives even the most damaged and oppressed people to fight for what is right.

Harriet Jacobs’ Defiance of Female Conventions

In Harriet Jacobs’ historically renowned narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the story of Linda Brent’s struggles as a slave woman help to shed light on the unrealistic standards placed on women during the nineteenth century. As defined by Barbara Welter, the “Cult of True Womanhood” called for domesticity, piety, purity, and submissiveness in all women of the period. Propagated by popular magazines and literature of the time, Welter explains these traditions reassured Americans “in a society where values changed frequently, where fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, where social and economic mobility provided instability as well as hope, one thing remained the same – a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found” (151-52). Similarly, any woman not living according to such standards was deemed a “semi-woman” (173). Although slaves were considered inferior by default, the Cult of True Womanhood put additional pressure on black women to live up to societal customs. While in her narrative Jacobs does not shy away from structured traditions of femininity, she uses conventions of a ‘true’ woman to emphasize the impossibility for slave women to obtain such standards.

At the end of the narrative, Linda reminds her audience that she has not yet fully achieved her life’s leading goal: to have a real home for herself and children. She stresses that although her “story ends in freedom,” she still “long[s] for a hearthstone of [her] own, however humble” (152). As defined by Welter a “true woman’s place was unquestionably by her own fireside – as daughter, sister, but most of all as wife and mother” (162). Throughout the narrative, Linda Brent is confronted with her inability to participate in the same domestic world as her white counterparts. Lacking sufficient role models in regard to True Womanhood, Linda’s Aunt Martha becomes her only symbol of ideal domesticity. A freed slave, Aunt Martha has her own home and makes her money by selling baked goods to the community. Generally known as possessing “intelligence and good character,” Aunt Martha comes as close to embodying ideas of True Womanhood as was possible for a black slave woman (131). However, Linda quickly realizes such domestic perfection is not so easily attained. Because of her slave master, Dr. Flint, she is unable to achieve True Womanhood. A result of sexual and emotional abuse, the plantation family becomes demoralized beyond salvation. As an example, the cottage Dr. Flint starts to build for Linda represents Jacobs’ rejection of the Cult of True Womanhood. An opportunity for her to finally have a home of her own, Linda instead chooses marriage to escape the oppressive wrath of Dr. Flint. In this instance, Jacobs addresses men manipulating women and how they can work to overcome it. Although women were partially reliant on men to secure domesticity as well as purity, Brent’s refusal to submit to Dr. Flint’s advances emphasizes the implicit rebellion towards True Womanhood. In short, Linda Brent’s rejection of Dr. Flint’s cottage embodies Jacobs’ critique on 19th century ideals of true women.

Before analyzing Jacobs’ implicit critiques of pious virtues, it is important to realize the extent to which blacks were excluded from religion. From early on in Linda’s life, she looks to God for answers but rarely finds fulfillment. In Chapter 2, Linda states that her “heart rebelled against God” following the death of her father (130). Throughout the narrative, Jacobs emphasizes the magnitude of exclusion blacks experienced regarding religion. Since blacks were seen as sub-human, they were considered unable to achieve salvation to the extent of their white counterparts. Therefore, piety is not a practical or attainable virtue in regard to black women (or men). Yet in the nineteenth century, “religion or piety was the core of a woman’s virtue, the source of her strength” (Welter 152). Linda Brent’s direct refusal of piety can be seen when she discounts Aunt Martha’s claims that slavery is a result of God’s will, in addition to other instances where she believes God does not act in her best interest. By illustrating how slavery jeopardizes one’s faith, Jacobs subtly comments on the unreasonableness of the Cult of True Womanhood.

Purity, linked to sexual identity, “was as essential as piety to a young woman, its absence as unnatural and unfeminine. Without it she was in fact, no woman at all, but a member of some lower order” (Welter 154). Likewise Jacobs, using sentimental language, appeals to her audience’s emotions by expressing her desire to obtain the same pure virtues as her reader (mainly upper-class white women). However, she justifies her deviation from the Cult by explaining how her role as a slave compromises the unforgiving standards of True Womanhood. Furthermore, Jacobs illustrates the magnitude to which a woman’s purity is endangered by white slave owners and their mistresses. From an early age Linda Brent’s purity is violated by her master “resort[ing] to many means to accomplish his purposes” by “whisper[ing] foul words in [her] ear” and “peopling her mind with unclean images” (134). Avoiding direct confrontation with Dr. Flint, Brent chooses to remain protected and isolated by her family and the public in hope silence will preserve her purity. She explains, “I had escaped my dreaded fate by being in the midst of people” (136). However, as the narrative progresses Brent develops a more explicit rebellion to the Cult of True Womanhood. For example, Linda deliberately prohibits Dr. Flint from furthering his sexual advances. Brent chooses her own marital partner and claims “there is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you” (137). Brent’s choice of her own sexual partner wholly undermines the preconceived expectations of slave women. She makes it clear she chooses (as opposed to being chosen by) Mr. Sands and states, “I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation” (137). It is the choice to make her own decisions concerning her sexual life that reveals her intrinsic agency, further affirming the claim that Jacobs seeks to discount the principles of True Womanhood. Since the Cult does not offer any hope for slave women to achieve purity, Brent settles on achieving personal dignity and sexual agency. At this point, it becomes evident that slave women are forced to neglect at least one element of the Cult of True Womanhood in order to protect another.

In the narrative, Harriet Jacobs uses characters besides Linda Brent to criticize the Cult’s requirement for submission. For example, the first woman the reader learns of is “a maiden lady, seventy years old” who buys Aunt Martha’s freedom at auction (132). With this action, she knowingly deters Dr. Flint from separating Aunt Martha from her family. With “a big heart overflowing with human kindness,” the woman actively prevents Dr. Flint from controlling Aunt Martha’s fate; thus, she defies the requirement for submission as mandated by the Cult of True Womanhood (132). From the outset, this example illustrates Jacobs’ contempt for structured female standards. If it can be said Jacobs uses this woman to demonstrate rejection of patriarchal authority, it is clear she uses Mrs. Flint for just the opposite. Immediately described as having “nerves so strong that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped ’til the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash,” it is quickly evident she is passive to slaves’ suffering and submissive to her husband’s wrongdoings (132). Throughout the narrative, Mrs. Flint incapsulates all features of True Womanhood. Although Mrs. Flint is thoroughly aware of her husband’s abuse towards female slaves, she does not address the abuse or try to attempt to stop it. Consequently, Brent (and presumably other female slaves) go unprotected from Dr. Flint’s wrath. Ultimately Brent criticizes Mrs. Flint for being “the mistress who ought to protect the helpless victim, [but] has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage” (134). By doing so, Jacobs illustrates how white women’s submission to male power leads to continued mental and physical assaults on black women. Overall, Jacobs uses Mrs. Flint to show the the extremely negative consequences black women faced as a result of slave-holding women remaining vehemently submissive to their husbands.

On that note, it is obvious that Harriet Jacobs uses her narrative as a way to combat expectations of a True Woman in every aspect. Unable to live up to the same expectations as upper-class white women, many slaves faced the same predicament that is emphasized through Linda Brent. For Brent, her purity and domesticity is blatantly compromised by her slave owner (a common problem during the nineteenth century). For the same reason, Brent and other slave women could not obtain complete piousness and submissiveness. In addition to showing how black women were continually expected to abide by the same virtues as white women, Jacobs brings attention to why they could not. By detailing the continual events that compromised her personal quest to achieve True Womanhood, Linda Brent shows exactly why slave women should not be “judged by the same standard as others” (138).

Works Cited

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Literature of the American South. ed. William Andrews. New York: Norton, 1998. 125-153. Print.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): 151-174. Web. 25 February 2016.

Challenges of Womanhood in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”

Beyond the brutalities that all slaves endured, females suffered the additional anguish of sexual exploitation and the deprivation of motherhood. In “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Harriet Jacobs focuses on racial subjugation but also gives voice to a different kind of captivity that men impose on women regardless of color. This form of bondage is not only exacted from women by men, but also accepted and perpetuated by women themselves. Jacobs’ narrative gives a true account of the unique struggles of female slaves, a perspective that has received relatively little historical attention, and how even within this tremendously challenging situation one can strive for liberation.Community and personal relations are portrayed as a key element in shaping the female slave’s experience. Jacobs attributes the success of her escape to a communal effort, but the importance of relationships in her narrative extends far beyond this aspect of her story. First, the slave mother’s central concern is her relationship with her children. This relationship is the reason Jacobs does not escape when she might, but later it is the reason she becomes determined to do so. By emphasizing the importance of family and home throughout her narrative, Jacobs connects it to universal values with which her Northern readers will empathize. She goes on to point out that the happy home and family are those blessings from which slave women are excluded. Jacobs reveals that she was taught to read and spell by her first mistress. Her ability to read makes her vulnerable to her master’s harassment; he begins pressing his immoral attentions on her through vulgar notes, which forces Jacobs to feign illiteracy. After Jacobs escapes to the North, her former master continues to harass her through letters, sometimes threatening her and other times attempting to lure her into returning. While her ability to read makes Jacobs vulnerable to her master’s abuse, it is, nonetheless, a source of power for her. For example, even before she reaches the North she is able to arrange for her letters to be sent from several northern cities.Jacobs’ decision to take a white man other than her master as a lover is more complex than a ‘poor choice’ that rejects virtue in favor of illicit sex. The choice of virtue and marriage is denied to her, and Jacobs’ only opportunity for asserting her sovereignty lies in the act of choosing. She chooses one illicit union over another, explaining, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment” (71). Jacobs accepts responsibility for her choice, emphasizing that she “did it with a deliberate calculation” (70). While she aspires to the same ideals of virtue and purity as her white readers, she stresses that for the slave girl, and the conditions of slavery, this ideology is simply unattainable. Jacobs fully acknowledges her transgressions against conventional sexual morality when she was a slave girl. At the same time, however, she articulates an indisputable truth—that the morality of free white women has little ethical relevance or authority when applied to the situation of enslaved black women in the South. Even at the end of the narrative, after Jacobs is freed, she has not fulfilled her desire in attaining her own home. No longer legally bound to a white master, she still feels morally bound to the woman who has bought and freed her, and thus she remains a domestic servant in another woman’s home. Jacobs identifies the institution of slavery as the source of misery and believes it to be the primary threat to the ideals of home and family that her readers value. The threat of slavery to the domestic ideal is most evident in its indifferent dismantling of slave families, separating parents from children for monetary gain. At the same time, Jacobs describes the misery that slavery causes in white slaveholding families, with the shameless acts of the master detracting from the morality and happiness of his entire family. Harriet Jacobs vividly depicts the horrors suffered by the female slave. 

The Church and Slavery

Throughout Harriet Jacobs’ powerful and informative autobiography, Christianity is repeatedly mentioned as a direct and indirect influence on the episodes of her life as an enslaved woman. Jacobs depicts religion amongst the enslaved as an assuaging escape from their suffering and exposes the Christianity of the White slaveholder as a hypocritical contrast to their lack of morality. Within her autobiography, she dedicates a chapter, entitled “The Church and Slavery,” to Christianity’s place in Southern society. Her accounts within this chapter show Northern Christian readers how their religion was being corrupted under the institution of slavery. Jacobs’ intended effect on the anti-slavery movement was influenced by the effects of the Second Great Awakening and the cohesion between abolition and religious revival. Although many Christians in the North were in favor of immediate emancipation, they were focusing their religious energy on the conversion of native people abroad rather than the moral education of White slaveholders within their own country. However, Jacobs recognizes that there were too many obstacles to overcome in order to inspire moral revolution amongst Southern slaveholders. Within this section of Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, the author attempts to connect with the Northern Christian in order to expand the abolitionist movement; Since her call to action is ultimately unrealistic, we get a sense of how difficult it was for abolitionists to achieve widespread change.

Christianity in Harriet Jacobs’ community was used as a means of further controlling enslaved people. Since slaveowners feared that their slaves would plan an uprising against them, religious instruction was used to encourage enslaved people to subject to their master and, therefore, to God. Reverend Pike taught the enslaved people within his community his interpretation of Christian morality. This was ironic because, according to Jacobs, “many of them [were] sincere, and nearer to the gate of heaven than sanctimonious Mr. Pike” (Jacobs 78). Although White Southerners sought to prevent uprising through moral education, African Americans had a more pure connection to God and a better moral understanding than any slaveholder or hypocritical Southern preacher. The most haunting aspect of any abusive slaveowner she described was that, “he…boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower” (Jacobs 55). A slaveowner’s Christianity was used as a means of justifying to themselves and to others that they had a moral conscious and that God would save them for it. Jacobs writes of this religious corruption to grab the attention of Northern Christians. The Second Great Awakening inspired religion that focused on morality, philanthropy, and reform. Therefore, any Protestant that was devoted to the values of the religious revival would be offended by the events in Jacobs’ narrative. Religion should not be used as a means of controlling the enslaved people, but rather, as a means of freeing them.

Many Northern Christians were oblivious to the true sufferings of the enslaved people. This is partially because slaveholders were manipulative and made it appear as if their slaves were content with their position. Any religious leaders that travel to the South were deceived into believing that enslaved people were allowed to freely worship and that they did not want to be emancipated. Therefore, Jacobs took it upon herself to expose the condition of the enslaved person to those who were deceived. She used the theme of religion in conjunction with the suffering of the enslaved people to build a connection with religious readers. The pressure to motivate readers to sympathize with the anti-slavery movement had an impact on the topics Harriet Jacobs’ focused on and the themes she incorporated in her narrative. Jacobs saw the importance of religion in her story partially due to the fact that religious Northerners could most likely be swayed to join the abolitionist movement if she connected with them.

Since Jacobs was influenced by the anti-slavery movement and wrote her narrative for the cause, she was pressured to call on others to do their part in the movement. She criticized the religious revival and asked them to focus on domestic missionary work rather than international. She wrote: “They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home…I ask them not to overlook the dark corners at home” (Jacobs 82). Here, she refers to the Southern Christians as heathen because they did not have a proper understanding of Christianity and its core values. They treated men as property, took children from their mothers, and physically assaulted enslaved people, yet deemed themselves ethical and in touch with God. If religious revivalists worked with Southern slaveholders, in theory, they would leave their positions as slave owners to follow more Christian lives. Since she personally saw the healing powers of religion within her own community, she hoped that people with money and higher status could utilize it as a weapon against the institution of slavery. Her connection to Northern Christians in conjunction with a call for their help in the South should have been beneficial to the anti-slavery movement. However, Jacobs acknowledged that change was not so simple.

Due to the conflict between the North and the South and the aversion Southerners had towards abolitionists, it would have been nearly impossible for missionaries to effectively inspire change amongst the slaveholders. Although there may have been some missionaries willing to teach in the South, they would have been run out of the region or punished for their work. In order for slaveholders to have been cognizant of their own sins, they would have had to be accepting of reformed religion and the teachings of the missionaries. Therefore, it was unrealistic to assume that missionaries would have the same influence over White Southerners as they did over other peoples. Jacobs tried to achieve what the anti-slavery movement asked of her by giving Northerners incentive to help enslaved people. Her retraction of her call to action represents the difficulty many anti-slavery activists faced. There were too many obstacles to overcome due to the immense power of slaveholders and the legal system that backed them. Social influence and the dehumanization of enslaved people allowed every day people to become blind to how evil the institution of slavery was. Even the most powerful of anti-slavery arguments, including Jacobs’ emotionally provoking narrative, had difficulty incorporating realistic plans to abolish the institution. Harriet Jacobs only weapon was her narrative. Although it was powerful, it was not enough to convince all Southern slaveholders to emancipate their slaves.

Jacobs’ incorporation of religious themes is representative of the relation religion had to all aspects of slavery. She made it easy for others to connect with her narrative by relating it to something many people were familiar with. In a broader sense, Jacobs’ narrative was meant to influence others by giving them an outlet to sympathize with the suffering of an enslaved person. Although religion was an important part of this autobiography, other aspects such as motherhood, familial ties, and the kindness of others gave readers something to think about and relate to. Jacobs saw how difficult it was to get others to sympathize with your story, believe your story, and be so influenced by it that they are inspired to take action and her writing conveys this. Although she was restrained by trying to get readers to care about her cause, her awareness of the power of her autobiography as a persuasive piece made it that much more memorable and significant.

The Force of Will

The epithet “the Land of the Free” is a distinctive phrase commonly associated with America, a country that prides itself for awarding its people with equal opportunity and the freedom to pursue their dreams. Yet, American literature does not seem to echo such patriotic sentiments. In fact, it seems as though there is a discernible conflict among authors regarding the definitions of “freedom” and “liberty.” Across countless texts born into the movement of American literary nationalism—including Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables—comes the suggestion that freedom is perhaps a product of personal willpower. This comparison places the responsibility of attaining liberty upon people, as opposed to legislation or other such socio-political circumstances, reducing the scope of this systemic concept to the abilities of the individual. With this frame in mind, will therefore acts as a double-edged sword, equally capable of unlocking the gates of freedom and acting as a constraint upon the individual.

The schism between freedom earned through individual willpower and that which is state-sanctioned is particularly evident in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Jacobs discusses her own experiences as a slave and witness to slavery. In Chapter 4, titled “The Slave Who Dared to Feel Like a Man,” Jacobs recounts her brother Benjamin’s search for liberation from his enslavement. A peculiar moment within this chapter is how Benjamin successfully evaded capture by having become white-passing in color: “For once his white face did him a kindly service. They had no suspicion that it belonged to a slave; otherwise, the law would have been followed out to the letter, and the thing rendered back to slavery” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 154-155). This passage marks a rarely-noticed aspect of the American slave experience, which differed from the commonplace notion that skin tone dictated status and allowed many light-skinned fugitive slaves to rebuild their lives under false identities. Therefore, a loophole in the legal definition of freedom is found, creating a dichotomy which allowed for freedom and entrapment—in terms of being able to live as one’s most authentic self—to coexist.

Moreover, the same chapter from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl exposes a facet of Benjamin’s logic that differed from Jacobs’ ideologies, that freedom is intrinsically tied to a geographical location, and one would be free so long as one reached that place. For Benjamin, that was New York: ‘“O Phil,” exclaimed Benjamin, “I am here at last.” Then he told him how near he came to dying, almost in sight of free land, and how he prayed that he might live to get one breath of free air. … “If I die now,” he exclaimed, “thank God, I shall die a freeman!”’ (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 156). Benjamin had evidently equated his closeness to freedom with his whereabouts, which blinded him to his mother’s efforts of securing that freedom through legal means and thoroughly convinced him that this was, instead, a form of surrender. Content to live out the rest of his days steeped in risk and peril, Benjamin’s willful rejection of societal systems is a dangerous game of ignorance, inciting Jacobs to assert, “He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 157). Though Benjamin believed he was responsible for his own liberation, through his failure to comply with his mother’s pursuits, he actually entrapped himself even further instead.

Aside from this, Jacobs points out in Chapters 5 and 10, respectively titled “The Trials of Girlhood” and “A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl’s Life,” that absolute willpower often cannot be exercised because of self-imposed restrictions. In the context of slavery in America, Jacobs addresses the silent masses of Northerners, whose refusal to criticize their own kind and participate in the fight for abolitionism is a show of self-willed complicity: “Surely, … you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 159). The “mean and cruel work,” as referenced by Jacobs, is the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which asked that citizens not only assist in the reclamation of runaway slaves, but also expose those in their communities who chose to aid a slave in their attempts to escape (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 391). This critique showcases the complacency of the North, whose willful ignorance makes their liberal beliefs seem shallow. For that reason, the notion of freedom as an awareness and expression of will fails to stand in light of Northerners’ behaviors, both in theory and in practice.

Additionally, Jacobs admits to having been guilty of limiting her own assertion of will as well. Regarding her grandmother’s volatile nature, Jacobs notes that “[she] dreaded the consequences of a violent outbreak [if she were to speak of Dr. Flint’s propositions]; and both pride and fear kept [her] silent” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 160). Similarly, when considering her voluntary involvement with Mr. Sands, Jacobs says, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment” (Douglass and Jacobs 2004, 192). What revoked and ascribed her freedom in the aforementioned circumstances were her own decisions, not those of others around her, which certainly complicates the ideas of freedom and self-liberty. Jacobs withheld a chance for catharsis with her grandmother out of personal anxieties but allowed herself a taste of control by choosing to be with Mr. Sands, thus reflecting the same dichotomy as before—the coexistence of freedom and entrapment—on an individualized level.

As for Poe’s “Ligeia,” the entirety of the tale is arguably indicative of what willpower is capable of achieving, perhaps emphasized by the supernatural qualities of the story and the seamless blend of realism and surrealism throughout. The narrative begins with an epigraph attributed to Joseph Glanvill, which argues that willpower is undying, and that man’s spirit can only be extinguished if he himself is weak-willed: “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. … Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” (Poe 2006, 62). This quote returns thrice more in the tale, becoming a motif paralleling Ligeia’s purported resurrection and possession of Lady Rowena. As the narrator describes, in life, Ligeia demonstrated “An intensity in thought, action, or speech, [that] was possibly, in her, a result, or at least an index, of that gigantic volition which, … failed to give other and more immediate evidence of its existence” (Poe 2006, 66). What better representation, then, of Ligeia’s overwhelmingly unshakeable spirit than for her to seemingly overtake the feeble Rowena? Yet, as the narrator admits, this impossible force of will may only have been an “opium-engendered” (Poe 2006, 74) vision, hence ultimately rendering it unattainable.

Falling on a similar note regarding the failure to gain freedom exclusively through wit and personal willpower, “The Pit and the Pendulum” harrowingly portrays the narrator’s imprisonment and torment as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. Though the tale initially coincides with “Ligeia,” that “even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man” (Poe 2006, 213), the narrator soon realizes that he had all but celebrated his little victories in vain. Upon having freed himself from his bonds with use of the vermin around him, the speaker comes to the startling conclusion that he had merely cleared one hurdle among a dozen others: “For the moment, at least, I was free. Free! – and in the grasp of the Inquisition! … Free! – I had but escaped death in one form of agony, to be delivered unto worse than death in some other” (Poe 2006, 224-225). This carries through to the very end of the story, when his efforts bring him to the precipice of death and his moment of surrender is intercepted: “An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss” (Poe 2006, 227). Whether to fight for his survival or succumb to his demise, his decision was thwarted, and the final outcome was determined by forces beyond his control, exhibiting the limitations of sheer will yet again.

Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables illustrates the lives of the Pyncheons and the intricately-woven events of iniquity, fate, and justice that stem from the titular house, as well as the failure of human will to defeat that which was ordained by nature. This is characterized by Alice Pyncheon’s tragic demise—in the chapter of the same name—at the hands of Matthew Maule. Upon being challenged by Maule, Alice’s pride gave her the fortitude to accept. But, despite her strong-willed endeavors, it seemed Alice was no match for Maule after all and was, from then on, controlled by a force she could not topple: “A will, most unlike her own, constrained her to do its grotesque and fantastic bidding [including being made to “laugh,” “be sad,” and “dance” as Maule decreed]. … And, therefore, while Alice Pyncheon lived, she was Maule’s slave, in a bondage more humiliating, a thousand-fold, than that which binds its chain around the body” (Hawthorne 2009, 208-209). This degradation of Alice Pyncheon indicates the horrors of subjugation and submission, when one is rendered a hollow shell made to be taken advantage of. Alice’s damning loss of independence thoroughly alters her as a person, revealing how being unable to exercise one’s willpower can, oftentimes, shatter one’s psyche beyond any hope of repair.

Regardless, it must not be left unsaid that Maule’s persuasive methods were accredited to some supernatural, sinister ability, rather than being a product of his self-born charisma or forceful personality. This can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about using one’s willpower against someone else’s, as this reductive act violates others’ freedom and dehumanizes them. When Maule successfully places Alice under his spell, he proclaims “She is mine! … Mine, by the right of the strongest spirit!” (Hawthorne 2009, 206) in a grotesque celebration of her possession. Maule proceeds to toy with Alice in the remainder of the chapter, pushing her limits time and time again, not comprehending the severity of his actions until after she dies: “He meant to humble Alice, not to kill her;—but he had taken a woman’s delicate soul into his rude gripe, to play with;—and she was dead!” (Hawthorne 2009, 210). While personal willpower, in relation to the fulfillment of one’s own desires, may be perceived as boundless and brimming with potential, it becomes a recipe for total disaster when used to combat another person’s will. Freedom, in this case, exists within our individual spheres to be used independently; to follow in Maule’s footsteps of constraining others would thereby be a gross conflict of interest and infringement of others’ rights.

In the chapter of “Governor Pyncheon,” Judge Pyncheon—or rather, Judge Pyncheon’s lifeless corpse—sits at the mercy of the narrator, who proceeds to question and ridicule him for his inaction. As the day wears on, leaving the judge’s plans unfulfilled, the omniscient speaker notes how the absolution of Time is slowly leeching its way into what remains of the judge’s livelihood: “The gloom has not entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now, taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything” (Hawthorne 2009, 276). Though a long-drawn-out process, it is clear that Judge Pyncheon has fallen victim to the will of Time by dying, whereas, in life, he exerted his control over time through man-made means. This is highlighted by the narrator’s observation: “Ah! The watch has at last ceased to tick; … —and it has run down, for the first time in five years. But the great world-clock of Time still keeps its beat” (Hawthorne 2009, 281-282). Whereas Judge Pyncheon’s strict business of timekeeping kept him frequently occupied, the embrace of death has completely overturned that strictly-monitored passage of time, and the arduous progression of Time can now reprise its rightful role. Consequently, Hawthorne presents the expression of individual will as no match for the unforgiving sands of Time, which dictate all in spite of personal commitments.

This sentiment is furthered in the latter half of this chapter, when the house itself seems to come alive in spite of its tenant’s stillness and a tiny fly destroys the narrator’s remaining shreds of hope for Pyncheon. Here, we see the will of nature overpowering man’s ambition. The same Judge Pyncheon—who was “virtually governor of the glorious old State! Governor Pyncheon of Massachusetts!” (Hawthorne 2009, 274), whose authority and influence were about to reach their peak—now paled in comparison to restlessness of his house, which “[made] a vociferous, but somewhat unintelligible bellowing in its sooty throat … in tough defiance” (Hawthorne 2009, 277). In the same way, Pyncheon’s inactivity and inability to brush away a small fly astounds the narrator, inciting a frustration so strong that this nameless speaker denounces Pyncheon with a “Nay, then, we give thee up!” (Hawthorne 2009, 283). The conviction of their tone cannot go unnoticed, especially as this narrator serves as the reader’s source of information. By forsaking their subject within the narrative, Hawthorne draws a compelling conclusion regarding the loss of willpower and how its underwhelming state is capable of transcending both literary form and convention.

To conclude, American literary nationalism has very much struggled to grapple with the ideas of “freedom” and “willpower”—on an individual and nationwide level—whether it liberates or restricts, and where the true control lies. From Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, willpower has influenced the characters’ actions to varying degrees; at times, emphasizing the nuanced relationship between liberty and entrapment, and, at times, exemplifying what occurs when an additional external force throws this balance off kilter and disrupts the precarious equilibrium. Progressing through these texts in order, the focus shifts from the clash of individual and state-sanctioned freedom, to the limitations of personal willpower, to the unstoppable force of the will of nature, thus taking on an increasingly spiritualized, intangible form, even to the point of calling death into question. Therefore, as it is affected and shaped by numerous socio-political constraints, freedom cannot simply be defined as a product of personal willpower, but an unending battle for dominance instead.

The Value of the Female Slave Narrative as Demonstrated by Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

When students learn about abolition, they are typically introduced to significant texts written by historical literary figures such as Fredrick Douglass and William Wells Brown. However, the slave narrative genre is overwhelmingly comprised by male authors such as these. Slave narratives written by females are a critical addition to the story of slavery and the need for abolition because they provide insight into the unique methods of abuse and oppression for enslaved women, as seen in Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, including forced motherhood and the emotional anguish that accompanied it.

Unlike the many enslaved females who were raped or forced to be a mistress by their masters, Harriet Jacobs was forced into motherhood in a rather unusual way. She procreated with a white man in the hopes that he would grow to care enough about her and their children to free them. She explained this decision when she wrote, “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me” (144). She was never forced to conceive children by her master (though he sexual harass her verbally), but this excerpt makes it clear that Jacobs was being wounded by slavery in a different way, and viewed motherhood not as something to be desired but as a means of necessity. Becoming a mother may have been an independent decision, but having children and giving up her purity was still forced upon her under the conditions by which she lived. Further, the emotional pain with which she dealt from such a decision was immense, especially once her plan failed. The story of this pain could never have been described in a man’s slave narrative, making the text crucial to people’s knowledge of the importance of abolition.

No matter what led to the conception of the offspring, Jacobs describes how the role of motherhood subjugated slave women in countless ways. Although Jacobs was in a unique position, one in which she could trust her children to her grandmother, she still exemplified the agony shared by slave mothers. For instance, the narrator endured ineffable misery for nearly a decade, during which she specified, “… I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die; but, for their sakes, I was willing to bear on” (264). Jacobs, like most slave mothers, was in a situation in which she had to watch her children suffer from the cruelties of slavery but had little power to help them. For slave owners, children were just another way to ensure that female slaves would remain subordinate, as it was unlikely that a mother would ever abandon her kin. Children also made for new labor that slave owners did not have to purchase. Therefore, having children was made it much more difficult for enslaved women to escape from slavery. They either had to choose to leave their children behind or take their children with them, which makes the process even more complicated than if they were to try to do so on their own. Although Jacobs was able to escape despite being a mother, she was one of few enslaved women that did so successfully, and her narrative reveals how strenuous the operation proved to be. Only females could be capable of writing narratives that demonstrated the complexities of the enslaved woman’s position such as this, and thus it is imperative for one’s understanding of slavery and abolition that they be read.

By confessing to even the most intimate struggles of her life and showcasing many forms the oppression of women in slavery, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl epitomizes how imperative female slave narratives are to complete the story of slavery and abolition. In particular, Jacobs reveals how motherhood was used to keep enslaved women from attempting to escape. Moreover, the narrative discloses the emotional torment of the slave mother, whose children are legally no more her own than they are her master’s. There has been little light shed on these lessons in the works of slave men, and those who have tried could have only done so through secondhand experience. To fully understand the horrors the corrupt system of slavery, it is essential that we include stories such as Harriet Jacobs’ when we teach of the need for abolition.