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.
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