Hardships That Slave Women Faced in Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl
Though a keystone in the development of American history and culture, the American slave trade was extremely detrimental to both the physical and mental well being of African American slaves. The system tended to be particularly brutal and demeaning for enslaved women, often depriving them of the ability to refuse an unwanted sexual advance. In her biography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs describes the hardships slave women faced, exclaiming “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (Martin 100). In the American Slave Trade, women were viewed as nothing more than a piece of property to be used by one’s master. This view led many slave masters to feel entitled to dictate every aspect of their slave’s lives, demanding anything they wished for their own benefit and pleasure, often without a thought as to the emotional or physical harm that may that may result. This often extended to female slaves sexual relations and many woman were raped or coerced into performing sexual acts with their masters or other men. With very little chance of avoiding their masters unwanted sexual advances, women often ended up “bearing children who would engender the rage of a master’s wife, and from whom they might be separated forever as a result” (National).
Harriet Jacobs and Valerie Martin, two esteemed authors, each explore the theme of sexual exploitation within the American slave institution in their respective works Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Property. They approach the issue from distinct perspectives, depicting the adversities suffered by women within the slave institution in seemingly contrasting ways, one from an African American slave and one from a white slave owner’s wife. Yet, despite the disparity in situation, they draw many parallels and illustrate a surprising amount of agreement on the horrendous conditions slave women were forced to endure. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an autobiography in which escaped slave Harriet Jacobs recounts her life’s story. She tells of her experiences growing up as a slave and the lengths to which she went to eventually find freedom for herself and her children. Property, on the other hand is a fictional novel written by Valerie Martin from the perspective of a white slave owner’s wife, Manon, who is unable to bear children and suffers at the hands of her cruel husband. Despite expressing the theme of sexual exploitation from differing perspectives and utilizing different literary tools to do so, both stories expose the devastating nature of the horrors women were forced to bear with no choice but to submit to the deviant desires of their masters.
Not only does the depiction of sexual exploitation differ between Incidents and Property, but the literary methods used by each author to enhance the readers understanding of this theme also differs between the two works. In Incidents, Harriet Jacobs focuses on metaphor and biblical allusion as tools to enhance the theme of sexual exploitation as her character, a victim of sexual harassment, uses her position of interest to another man to fight for freedom from life as a slave. Valerie Martin, in Property, however tends to focus on using foreshadowing and rhetorical questions as tools to enhance her understanding of sexual exploitation. Each of these helps in the readers understanding of the sexual exploitation Manon experiences and witnesses both as the wife of a slave owner and her own abuse by her controlling husband.
Throughout Incidents, Jacobs uses metaphor as a tool to enhance the theme of sexual exploitation and abuse. A metaphor makes a comparison between two dissimilar things in order to provide clarity or reveal hidden commonalities. When describing the often-inescapable melancholy feelings that weigh on a slave girl, she uses the metaphor “every where the years bring all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows” (Jacobs 34). Jacobs is comparing the creation of life to the sun as it rises, bringing with it a new day yet she states that for a slave this new beginning is darkened by the shadows of sin and sorrow. This creates a powerful image in the readers mind with dawn, typically referring to the brightening of a new day and new opportunities, being darkened by the burden of a life of slavery before the sun even has a chance to fully rise. This metaphor refers, specifically to Jacobs’ description of the interactions between herself, her mistress, and her master and the rampant jealousy many mistresses hold for the young slave girls who capture the sexual attentions of their mistresses’ husbands. These young girls have no chance of escape and yet instead of pity or kindness, they receive jealous hate.
An allusion, in literature, is a passing reference to something well known by the audience in order to bring something specific to mind. In addition to metaphor, Jacobs uses biblical allusions to explore sexual exploitation in her story of growing up as a slave before eventually managing to gain freedom. She refers to Mark 12:31 and Matthew 7:12 in the first chapter when she explains that her first master, whom as a child she saw as kind, taught her the read and of the bible and commandments stating she learned “Though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself… [and] Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” (Jacobs 9). Here, Jacobs cleverly shows the reader her realizations that, despite the religious influence she was exposed to as a young girl, her masters would never treat her as she understood the bible to command. In reference to her master, she says “I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor” (Jacobs 9). Here, the presence of these extremely well recognized biblical allusions creates a clear juxtaposition between how Jacobs is taught a person should be treated and the treatment she actually receives due to her dark skin color and circumstances of her birth. She makes a clear statement about the morality issues in slavery, comparing the actions of her masters to the highest source of ethics and morality she knows. She feels that “God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (Jacobs 9). Her placement as a slave negates her acceptance as a human being and even the most kind and religious master will mistreat her according to the biblical lessons she recalls from her childhood. This lack of humanity placed on slaves, particularly slave women, is what allows them to be treated as property and their masters to feel no guilt in forcing their own sexual desires or inflicting emotional or physical damage on a slave. Jacobs comes to recognize that her feelings are of no consequence to her masters, for even the most god-fearing white slave master can justify their actions through their view that slaves are not humans worthy of their compassion.
Foreshadowing is a warning or subtle indication of an important event that may happen later in the plot. In the novel Property by Valerie Martin, foreshadowing is utilized to illustrate the severity and commonness of sexual exploitation of women in the slave institution. Sarah is a slave who’s youth and beauty, coupled with her mistress’ unhappiness and inability to have children leads her master to coerce her into performing sexual acts for his pleasure. Martin uses foreshadowing to illustrate that sexual harassment often came as no surprise to female slaves, stating that Sarah “was looking past [Manon], with an expression of sullen expectation, at my husband” (Martin 20). While at this point nothing has explicitly been mentioned about sexual exploitation or sexual interest in Sarah, foreshadowing has already begun to hint at its inevitability. Sarah is sullen and expectant of it, revealing the terrible reality of how common sexual exploitation of slave women is as well as her inability to do anything to prevent herself from being violated by he master. Sarah’s natural beauty and her master’s crude advances will leave her in a position where she cannot escape her masters desires and as such will be hated by his wife, Manon and lose any chance she might have had at protection. This inevitability and the impossible situation so many slave women have been placed in becomes even more obvious with the statement “By the end of that year, Sarah was pregnant” (Martin 24).
Valerie Martin also utilizes the rhetorical question as an effective method of examining the theme of sexual exploitation in Property. A rhetorical question is a question with the purpose of forcing the reader to think about something in depth without having to explain everything in the context of the novel. In Property, Manon poses the question to the doctor “Would the fact that the servant I brought to the marriage has borne him a son, and that creature is allowed to run loose in the house like a wild animal, would that be, in your view, sufficient cause for a wife to despise her husband?” (Martin 38). Not only is the doctor not in the least bit surprised by this revelation, but he goes on to suggest that this simply implies Manon must be the reason the couple has not had any children yet and not her husband. Rape and sexual exploitation of a slave woman is so common that it is simply overlooked as something that’s bound to happen and of no one’s concern. This is the true, appalling nature of the slave trade industry; it strips a slave of their basic human rights, their humanity and casts them out as nothing more than a piece of property to be used and abused as their owners wish.
Property and Incidents both represent the harsh realities of sexual exploitation and abuse experienced by female slaves in the American institution of slavery. Despite approaching the issue from different perspectives and utilizing different methods to enhance the understanding of these issues, both authors successfully draw on the reader’s emotions and sympathies, exposing the hopelessness and desperation that often accompanies these awful situations. Both novels examine the lengths many slave women would go to in order to attempt to avoid these unwanted attentions and forced sexual submission, despite understanding how hopeless their situation might be. While it is very rare that any attempt to rebel against their masters demands would be successful, and the risks of severe punishment are high, many woman grasp at any chance they might have of saving themselves from their masters sick desires. The truth that is revealed about the nature of sexual exploitation in relation to American slavery in each of these works is truly appalling.
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