Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl
In “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Harriet Jacobs writes, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” (64). Jacobs’ work presents the evils of slavery as being worse in a woman’s case due to the tenets of gender identity. Jacobs elucidates the disparity between societal dictates of what the proper roles were for Nineteenth century women and the manner that slavery prevented a woman from fulfilling these roles. The book illustrates the double standard of for white women versus black women. Harriet Jacobs serves as an example of the female slave’s desire to maintain the prescribed virtues but how her circumstances often prevented her from practicing. Expectations of the women of the era, as stated in class discussions, resided in four arenas: piety, purity, domesticity and obedience. The conditions that the female slave lived in were opposed to the standards and virtues set by society. It resulted in the female slave being refused what was considered the identity of womanhood. It was another manner in which slavery attempted to eradicate the slaves’ value of themselves. Jacobs continually struggled to maintain these female virtues. Her belief in the ideas of piety, purity, domesticity and is highlighted in her admiration of one rare, benevolent mistress, The young lady was very pious… She taught her slaves to lead pure lives… The eldest daughter of the slave mother was promised in marriage to a free man; and the day before the wedding this good mistress emancipated her, in order that her marriage might have the sanction of law. (43) Piety was one of the subscribed to virtues. However, in order for one to be pious and obtain religious insight, it would be necessary to read the Bible. This would be an obstacle for the overwhelming majority of slave women as illiteracy was prevalent, Jacobs wrote, . “.. it was contrary to the law; and that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read” (61). As Jacobs knew how to read and write, illiteracy was not an impediment. Yet, slaves were forbidden to meet in their own churches, another catch for the female slave attempting to keep the virtue of piety. Jacobs writes of the difficulties the slaves had in obtaining religious instruction after the Nat Turner insurrection, “The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church… Their request was denied” (57). A slave would only be allowed to practice the religion of their masters, . “.. the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters” (57). A typical sermon would consist of “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters… ” (57), this type of sermon had less to do with a woman’s piety than a slave’s obedience. Nevertheless, Jacobs exhibits piety in many fashions, despite these disadvantages. When services begin in the home of a free colored man, Jacobs was invited to attend as she could read, regardless of the risk to herself “Sunday evening came and, trusting to the cover of night, I ventured out” (57). Jacobs practiced piety as the dictates of the period demanded at a great risk to her safety. She taught a man to read the bible and begs of missionaries to recognize the need to instruct slaves in biblical studies. (61). Jacobs did not only speak of piety, but through these examples, but put it into action and could fulfill this one aspect of the female gender identity. The practice of purity was the virtue most denied to a woman in slavery. Men of society constructed the conventions, established the importance of purity in women. Purity was praised and rewarded in free white women and stolen from black slave women. The system worked against protection of slave women from sexual abuse by their masters. Sexual abuse of slave was not viewed as a criminal offense because she did not count as a woman. Rather, she was property of the owner, who could dispose of her body and he saw fit. Jacobs’ master explicitly stated, “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things” (26). Sexual harassment was taken as a matter of course, “I now entered my fifteenth year, – a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl” (26). Sadly, sexual abuse was accepted almost as a rite of passage for a female slave, that at a certain age, her purity would be stolen. A female slave could not expect to find safe harbor even from the other woman of the house, “The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and outrage” (26). As opposed to acting on behalf of the female slaves, the mistress saw the slave as the problem. Without any assistance, Jacobs consistently attempted to thwart her master’s sexual attempts in order retain her purity. Importance of this purity is highlighted in the passage describing her rebellion to build a separate house where he could be alone with her, I vowed before my make that I would never enter it. I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on from day to day, through such a living death. (46). Jacobs viewed the preservation of purity as passionately as any woman but slavery had placed her in circumstances that left her its certain loss. Enslaved women could not even maintain purity if subscribing to the idea of sexual relations occurring within a marriage, as it was typically denied by law or the owner. Jacobs had fallen in love with a free black man We became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl’s first love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such… 33) Jacobs is denied marriage to her lover by her owner, “Never let me hear that fellow’s name mentioned again. If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will cowhide you both… I’ll teach you a lesson about marriage free niggers! ” (35-36). However, Jacobs will not allow it to totally destroy her sense of self as a woman. While she has suffered abuse and harassment and the hands of Dr. Flint, Jacobs remained determined that Flint would not “succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet,”(46). As she is not permitted purity, Jacobs decided to take a white lover. If she were to be forced to give up her purity it would be at least . “.. to a man who is not married… It seems less degrading to give one’s self, that to submit to compulsion” (47). The quotes show Jacobs’ recognition of the sanctity of marriage has well certain personal standards. Jacobs possesses a sense of self, she feels that she deserves to choose her own lover. Regarding her lover she wrote, There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you except that which he gains by kindness… The wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy (47). Jacobs used her own sexuality as a defense, since keeping her physical purity, a right to other women, had been denied to her. By choosing an unattached man, Jacobs explains that does retain a certain moral purity, as much as could be allowed in her situation The denial of a legal marriage and own a home with him ruled out the possibility for domesticity virtue to be achieved. The women in slavery were not married and living with their own husband and children. The master often used the female slave for breeding, the children taken from the mother and sold. Jacobs poignantly narrates this destruction of family through New Year’s Day auction of slaves, On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to
a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. … I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me? ” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence. (17) How could the female slave possibly exhibit domesticity in a system where such constructs were not permitted to her? Women in bondage lived in a society where their offspring were not their own, as children . “.. follow the condition of the mother… ” (37), they were but the property of the master to be taken and sold at his discretion. While domesticity was highly regarded for the white women, this was not applicable to a black slave “my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties… (33). Yet, domesticity was one of the values that Jacobs most strove to maintain. She had the experience of a traditional family earlier in life speaking of how she had . “.. lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise… ” (9). Other black women apparently esteemed domesticity, as Aunt Marthy stated Ah, my child, …. Stand by your own children, and suffer with them till death. Nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children; and if you leave them, you will never have a happy moment” (75). Family and the attempt to preserve some sort of domestic was supreme. Jacobs viewed her refuge in the garret as a means to keep some semblance of domesticity and family life by being near her children. She suffered in seclusion for seven years, residing in the garret that . “.. was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high… ” (91). Jacobs did in the name of family, in yearning for domesticity, for through all her discomfiture she was able to take solace and even joy in at least being able to be near her children, “But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children” (92). Jacobs’ pains illustrate how strong of a desire for the domestic family life that was denied. Even after obtaining freedom for her children and herself, she writes, “The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own” (156). A traditional family life remained Jacobs’ most desiderate dream which she partially obtained in her freedom, but not in the same manner that a white woman could enjoy. The one aspect of the ideal Nineteenth century female that most slave women were able to achieve was that of obedience. It was not the same obedience that the free woman was expected to subscribe to – it was not obedience to her husband, God or family, but slave woman was expected full, unquestioning obedience to her master. This obedience was achieved by physical force and the slaves’ knowledge that they were nothing more than property. Obedience was the dictate Jacobs rebelled against. After the refusal of her request for marriage Jacobs recognizes her insolence to her master, “I know I have been disrespectful, sir… ut you drove me to it… ” (35). Jacobs could not acquiesce when such an action would be the complete destruction of her body and soul. The institution of slavery was complete subservience and annihilation of a female slave as an individual being. To practice that kind of obedience, to be submissive, would be certain death to Jacobs, whether in the physical or spiritual sense. Jacobs’ “disobedience” occurred when her piety, purity and domesticity where threatened. Instead, Jacobs exhorted obedience to the precept of morality. Moreover, she adhered to obedience of what was considered moral and just for white women. The prescribed of ideas of what construed womanhood in the 1800s surrounded a purity, piety, domesticity and obedience. Those were most of the characteristics that were not permitted for the female slave to practice or acquire. Examining the experiences of Harriet Jacobs in “Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl”, one witnesses that while Jacobs desired to practice the dictates of her time slavery forced her to often do otherwise
The Incidents In The Life
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Conclusion
The autobiography of the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Linda Brent, reveals why she decided to make her personal story public. In the autobiography, we could see how her life was before she was enslaved and the struggles she had to go through when she was a slave. Her parents take care of her for her first six years.
The death of her mother and her father resulted to be raised by her grandmother named Aunty Marty. Brent’s parents did not mention to her that she was a slave. She grew up with a better mentality rather than a person who knew they were owned by someone from the start.
Margaret Horniblow was her slave owner, she taught her to do things that many slave owners would not teach a slave until she passed away. She knew about literature and how to sew thanks to her mistress. After her mistress Margaret died when Linda was twelve, Linda got a new mistress she was five years old named Emily Flint. The five-year-old father Dr. Flint was the one who told Linda what to do. He was like a villain in the story. We could see in that he abuses of the power that the slave system gives him. He never showed a sign of sympathy for the way he would abuse the slaves.
Dr. Flint abuses Linda sexually but she is not left with her arms crossed, she actually gets into a relationship with a white man named Mr. Sands who is successful but she doesn’t love him and the result of that affair they had two children. Brent runs away from Dr. Flint and she hides for seven years in an attic. In this paper, I will form an argument on how the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl provides evidence in white and slave cultures that shows the social construction of gender shaped workspace, family, and the type of access of education.
Education was not given to slaves because many slave owners saw them as a property. In their eyes they thought they had no need to learn anything. Education was exclusive to slaves it did not matter if you were a male nor female. However, if a slave knew how to read was because their masters or mistress taught them to, these masters or mistress were considered to be a sympathetic master. To have a sympathetic mistress or master was very rare. An example, for this, would be the fact that Linda knew English literacy and she was taught by Margaret Horniblow. White people did receive an education, women, and men were able to get an education.
The family was very important to both white and black people. However, being black was hard due to the fact that their families would always get torn apart. White slave owners were cruel because they did not feel sympathy for the children who were taken away from their mothers. A mother would do anything to get their children back but it was not easy, if the mother wanted her child back she had to purchase them as if they were some type of toy they were buying from the store. In the autobiography, it states how families were torn apart.
An example of this is her grandmother, Aunty Marty was separated from her kids, Benjamin and Philip. Aunty Marty became her own mistress, she bought her son Philip but never knew what happen to her son Benjamin after he was free. The family structure of a slave is how we could imagine it, males were in charge, as part of their job they had to provide to his owner but if the male slave did not have a family it would be the same structure but what changed is that he had to only support himself. Linda remained hiding in a space above the shed of her grandmothers for seven years in order to get freedom not only her but her two children.
The sacrifice she did was an act of true love for her family. Families would get separated no matter your gender, female and male slaves were treated the same in that aspect. A white person had it easy, they did not have to worry who was going to buy them and how were they going to be split apart or if they had to have enough money to get their children back from a slave owner. In a white person’s household was different they were never separated. The only reason a white person was separated from their family was that they were running away from them due to conflicts and different opinions that they shared.
Everybody would like to have a job in order to have money on his or her wallet and provide the bread for your family. If you were a female and male slave getting a job was not easy, typically slaves had a challenging job such as working in the plantation fields. Female slaves did everything at home, cook, clean, and bare children. In the autobiography states, how a female would cook for the master and if the master was not satisfied with food, the master would whip the female slave. Dr. Flit would force that slave to eat everything from her plate in front of him. Slave owners would have sexual desires for their slaves.
Slaves had to obey what their master told them to do if there was some type of resists they were punished. Having to be owned by someone was not easy, male slaves would get into arguments with their master and the arguments would escalate quickly when that happens they were punished, their punishment was not providing food for them. White people were not put through all of this, they did not have hard jobs because they would monitor slaves and owned slaves.
The autobiography was written during 1861. Her story was the beginning of a good change. Her story is mind-blowing, she had to face a difficult obstacle in order to be free, many people should read her story to learn about history. Throughout this course we saw males and female slaves were not very different. Both sex did not received education but males had more of an advantage the level of education they had was basic but it was something.
The family role was different for both sex because females had to do household activities and take care of the children in the other hand males had to provide income. Same goes with getting a job, women would not work and stayed home and males would work in the fields. White people’s life was not as challenging. Both sex had the opportunity to have an education and a job. Family roles were similar to slave women roles, they had to take care of their children. However, this is her story we can not rely on her insight. The way things that happen to her were very heart breaking but she was not the exception, if we dig more into more female slaves story her story would be similar to the rest of them. It is a good thing that a woman shared her story, we are used to males having more power than women and society views that as a correct thing.
White and Slave Gender Roles
The book Harriet A. Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an autobiography about her life as a slave girl. She described her childhood living with her grandmother and her grandmother’s mistress.
Then it all changed when her grandmother mistress died and she was sold off to the mistress’s son, Dr. Flint. Her life started to become dark and then became darker when she got pregnant. She then did everything in her power to ensure that her children get their freedom. She went against Dr. Flint and was in great distress on the consequence she got into when they manage to get her. She pretended to go to the North but was hiding in a small cramped crawlspace in her grandmother’s house. There she saw through a small hole her children grow up without them ever knowing where she was. In the crawlspace, there was no light except the little peek hole she made, no heater or air conditioning so summer where hot and sweaty and winters were freezing cold, and the air was very thin. All her friends and family tried to hide the fact where she is. They all provided her things she needed while she stayed in the crawlspace like food, water, blankets, and etc. They were times at night they would allow her to go to the storage room so she can stretch her limbs since it’s so crapped up in the crawlspace. Dr. Flint was determined to find Jacob and bring her back. He sold her children to another man and that man set them free. The children then lived with there grandmother. She hid in the crawlspace from Dr. Flint and anyone who would try to turn her in for seven years. But all was worth the trouble because she managed to move to New York and reunite with her children as freed slaves. In this paper, I am going to argue how Jacob’s book illustrates how gender roles in both white and slave, for men and women, are formed based on work, families, and power.
One way, we can see gender role construction in Jacob’s book is white men worked while white women stayed at home. The same goes for slaves, the men worked hard labor, on the plantations, while women stayed at the masters home. The slave women would take care of the masters’ children. They stayed beside their master, mistress, or masters children and be ready to aid them whenever they’re needed. Slaves had to be obedient to their masters. If slaves ever go against their masters they would get punished, either by getting beaten up or starved. There are times they would just sell them if the master is ever tired of them. The way slaves are treated causes them to want to try to run away to the North where they can be free. Some succeed but some are captured by slave hunters and be sent back to their masters where they would get punished for trying to run away. When slave get punished some survive the punishment but some would die in the process, that how badly they were treated. The whites aren’t afraid to kill a slave especially a slave man. The slave tends to try to protect the slave women because they produce the next generation of slaves.
Another way, we can see gender role construction in Jacob’s book is through families. There are a lot of ups and down when it comes to family, both white and slaves. There are white men who go behind their wives and have affairs with a slave woman. This causes a lot of slave women to get pregnant and make the wifes upset. The wives have to carry the burden of being cheated on, no by another white woman but by a slave woman, so they get jealous. It causes the wives to want to harm the slave women or just get rid of her, but the master is the one that decides what to do with the slave. Slave women are forced to keep the secret of who the father of the baby or it will ruin the white family reputation. Slave families don’t live together forever. When a child is born into a slave family they are already considered as slaves. When the children reach a certain age the slave women or men’s master put the slave children into an auction. Slaves family when separated they never get to see each other again. Whenever a slave wants to get married, they have to get the condolences of their master.
Finally, we can see gender role construction in Jacob’s book is by power. Men have power, especially white men, they control the entire household. Anything that someone in the family or the slaves want to do something or wants to go out, they have to ask the head of the household permission, meaning the men. Men own the property, they pay the bills and provide for the family. The women are there to support the family by taking care of them. Slave men protect their families but they don’t have power than the white men do. White men consider slaves as property than as human beings. Women can’t go against their husbands, they have to support them in any way necessary. The children are taught the same way. Once the children are married, the sons become the head of their household and the daughter provide for the family by cooking, cleaning, and etc. Slaves, both men and women, don’t have the same rights as the white people, they are there to serve them. And it goes the same for slave children. Once the children come to an age where they can be auctioned they will follow the same rules as their parents and every slave that lives in the South. That is why a lot of slaves try to escape to the North, so their children won’t have to go through what they went through.
In Jacob’s book, it illustrates how slaves lived through her eyes as a slave. Its know that slaves don’t know how to read and write, and some are taught by their masters. White men back then when they wrote they would maybe change things to make them seems less of bad people. This book puts everything about slavery from a different perspective. But one thing that is troubling is how accurate is the book? Its been said by Jacob that she learned her abc’s, but is it enough to write an entire book. I believe she was able to write the book but her editor made changes to the writing so that everyone can understand. Because if you would read a dialogue from the book the writing isn’t the same as the rest of the book. Could there be a possibility that the editor would have not written the book exactly how she wanted, did he change a few things? It is a good book if want to see through the perspective of a slave. But is best to keep in mind that the book did come from her but there could be a few things the editor possibly changed because how she wrote was hard to understand.
The Mistreatment Of Women In Slavery Before An Emancipation Proclamation
The treatment of women in the United States during slavery varied depending on time, and parts of the country. Slavery in the United States can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was legal in the country and became common within much of the nation until it got abolished when the Emancipation Proclamation was introduced. It was awful for women like Harriet Jacobs who was a writer, abolitionist, speaker, and reformer.
She escaped to the north in 1842, where she was taken in by anti-slavery friends from the Philadelphia vigilante committee. They helped her get to New York in September in 1845, where she was able to help many freed slaves. In 1861, Jacobs’ autography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which reveals Jacobs’ hardship as a slave woman, how she overcame challenges and gained freedom for herself and for her children was published. The other article, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, which was written by Mustakeem (2016) also reveals how slave women and men treated, got unexpectedly abducted from their villages, and forcefully travelled over the Atlantic ocean to be exchanged as commodities or sold during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This book exposes how the unexpectedly abducted slaves’ voyages got treated and the disappointing experiences; in particular, women slaves had to face such as getting raped, being tied up together as animals and getting thrown off the boats to demolish their feelings and dehumanize them in order to avoid fighting back or escaping. These both books, explain in depth how the treatment of slave women in slavery looked like during the Antebellum History of the United States of America which is considered to be the period between the war of 1812 and civil war.
The women’s movement could be able to arouse sorrow for mistreated women among whites and obtain their help for their anti-slavery movement led by abolitionists and could initiate a government towards the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1800s, women were thought to be weak, unintelligent, and overall inferior to men in their communities; moreover, women born into slavery had a harsh and disappointing time. For instance, Harriet Jacobs, daughter of Delilah, the slave of Margaret Hornblow, and Daniel Jacobs, the slave of Andrew Knox, came to this world in Edenton, North Carolina, in the fall of 1813. Jacobs had no idea that she was the property of someone (a slave) until her mother died at her age of six. When Jacobs turned 12, her mistress who taught her how to read, write, and sew died since then she started facing obstacles that she was not expected. She had two children at her age of 20, but sexual exploitation drove her into hiding for 7-years until she was able to escape to New York in 1842. Finally, she could be able to reunite with her two children. They are so many similar recorded stories about the treatment of women in slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation. Most of women slaves were exposed to sexual exploitation, forced to split-up from their loved ones, and subjected to get more beatings by their owners if a slave tried to save or defend them from any types of abuses, like sexual, at their hands of their owners, usually by slave owners, white males. They were not even allowed to defend themselves against any mistreatments or abuses. Most of the people may not aware of how the process of bringing slaves into America from their native soil was harsh and brutal.
They were kidnapped forcefully and sold to slave traders in exchange for money or commodities. According to John (2014) only luck few slaves, one captured slave in three slaves, could be survived in their long journey from Africa until they got to America, and they were used to hand to people who kept them busy and poor situations. In their resided country, USA, they could face challenges such as a physical abuse, long work day, malnutrition, and no medical attention after severe injuries. In 1825, Harriet and her brother, John S Jacobs (William) moved into the household of Dr. Flint. Shortly after Harriet and John situated her father died. This situation made her life worse, feeling alone and unhappy, and unbearable. In addition, it exposed and facilitated her to a sexual exploitation. Dr. Flint told her that he was going to build a small cottage house for her, in a secluded place, four miles away from town to make her his concubine. In the end, he came and told her the house was built, and he ordered her to go to it. At age of fifteen, feeling hopeless to escape Dr. Flint, Jacobs entered to a sexual relationship with a Mr. Sands whom she had already introduced and seemed to her a great thing to have and by degrees, a more tender feeling crept into her heart. The union of Mr. Sands, an unmarried white lawyer and future U.S. Congressman and Jacobs produced a son, Joseph, in 1829, and a daughter, Louisa Matilda, in 1833. The story of Jacobs’ life lists some of the hardships faced by women in slavery in ?the antebellum period’ and during the last decades before an emancipation proclamation could be in effect. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was legally introduced, in the 1800s and 1700s, attempting to escape was a difficult thing women had to face because most often they could have kids, and could be the only one who used to feed a whole family and could be the only source of a family’s income.
For instance, in the case of Nancy Gindrat; a slave woman, who was owned by James Epingger, could be able to escape on October 12, 1829, from her master. She was in finding for more than two years and her master promised to offer a price of $350, which was higher than any other slave’s price, to who-ever could find her. Despite all the offerings that James made to get her back, she managed to be remained free. In another similar case, wishing that by seeming to hide Harriet Jacobs could induce Dr. Flint to sell her children to her father; Jacobs hid herself in a crawl space above storeroom in her grandmother’s house in the summer of 1835. In that “little dismal hole” she remained for the next seven years, sewing, reading the Bible, keeping watch over her children as best she could, and writing occasional letters to Dr. Flint designed to confuse him as to her actual whereabouts. Jacobs explained the moment she was in hiding in her words as At times, I was stupefied and listless; at other times I became very impatient to know when these dark years would end, and I should again be allowed to feel the sunshine, and breathe the pure air.” One can see by reading Jacobs’ and Nancy’ life stories that women were forced to split up or broken up with their loved ones, husband, and children because their families or women themselves could be sold whenever their masters (men who have people working for) or mistresses (masters’ wives) wanted to do it like one would sell his/her property, furniture or animal. Not all slaves that had a chance to escape had the same luck, only a very few numbers of slave women who escaped could stay free without getting found back and having difficulties. The slave owners did not care about in tearing families apart; all they used to think was about getting money and services.
The era before the end of a civil war can be reminded in the history of the United States of America as the era slave women suffered many traumas. The narrative book penned by Harriet Anne Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and other stories that shared in this document have been providing and been inspiring the following generations with an understanding and revealing a look at often-undocumented histories of women in slavery. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of the bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Henceforward, hopes started to come for many American women who had wanted freedom and suffered under slaves. This proclamation did not affect and apply to slaves already under the Southern army. Using freed black men and freed slaves, eventually, helped Lincoln to win the civil war.
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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.
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).
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.