In the years leading up to the American Civil War, life for slaves was arduous and full of hard work and servitude. They were tied to their masters, with the notable exceptions of when they were resold and traded among other slavers. Violence was common as a form of coercion and punishment, due to the harsh conditions that slaves often had to work under; men were beaten, and women were sexually assaulted on a regular basis. Slave families were very difficult to form and keep together, due to the frivolous sale and purchase of slaves by plantation owners. Often, parents and children were torn apart as they were sold to different plantations, as there was no way to protect themselves from this sort of harsh fate. With these difficult circumstances in mind, and the plight of the slave in 19th century America, the tale of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an uplifting, if darkly realistic one, especially as the events that inspired his escape attempt were all too common in that era, and his problems were very indicative of the average slave of the time.
As soon as newly transported slaves made it to their new homes with their masters, they were typically put to work in some of the most physically demanding and unforgiving jobs possible at the time, such as clearing trees, breaking in fields with new crops, and picking cotton. Their hours were harsh, often working from sunrise to sunset, and their immune systems were not used to the new diseases and illnesses that awaited them in America, which was not helped by the presence of mosquitoes near the water beds where they were forced to toil. So many slaves died in such great numbers that many planters opted to rent slaves for the harder work, instead of risking the ones that they owned. (Berlin, 174)
The women did not have it any better: they were always expected or forced to have sexual relations with their owners, and illegitimate children with slave women were common. In Harriet Jacob’s semi-autobiographical novel Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she writes that her master “tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the sameroof with him–where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature.” (Jacobs, 21) This clearly illustrated the sexual abuse that she had to endure at the hands of her master, something that she did not escape even when she moved on to other masters and owners. As a result, whether you had to work out in the fields or in the master’s home, being a slave was an environment that few wished upon themselves.
Despite all this, there were slaves who attempted to make the best of it and form families of their own. Granted, these times were few, as not many slaves attempted to form families, due to the lack of travel opportunities in order to find a mate or lower success rates of births because of the stress associated with slave life. It was also tough to keep families together if you were slaves, as slave owners would buy and sell their slaves at a moment’s notice, thereby tearing apart families that had been formed within the ranks of their workers. There was no official church or legal recognition of slave marriages. (“African American Family”) Even the most tenuous of connections to a slave family after being moved made it harder still to cope with the separation, as seen in Lewis Clarke’s book Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke:But all my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this worse than Arab family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable. They were distant only about thirty miles, and yet in ten long, lonely years of childhood, I was only permitted to see them three times. (22)
All of these facts about the lives of slaves are in the background or come directly into play in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially where it pertains to the life of Jim. The entire impetus of Jim deciding to escape in the first place is his realization that he is going to be sold downriver to worse slave owners by Mrs. Watson (60). This kind of thing was common at the time, as slaves were sold whenever a better price could be found; Jim’s serendipitous eavesdropping allowed him to take action before it was too late. If he had not done so, he would have had to resign himself to further enslavement and worse conditions than he had experienced before; while he was still a slave, Jim recognized the favor that he carried with Mrs. Watson, and selling him to another slave owner ran the incredible risk of putting him in harsher labor than he was experiencing now. With that in mind, Jim opted to try for freedom rather than be sold further south, where he would surely be treated worse. Jim’s objectives also play into the fact that slave families were hard to keep together, as he sought to escape to Ohio, where he could then attempt to purchase the freedom of his family and forego the normal hardships that would go along with the typical slave family experience.
Much like many slaves repeatedly were during the era of slavery in the Americas, Jim was a commodity, a product, something to be bought and sold as soon as the right bargain came along. African Americans had an extremely hard time in the United States, due to the environment they were brought to and forced to work in. Even their basest attempts to form families and create some sort of independent happiness for themselves were made nearly impossible, given the incredible circumstances they were put through. The book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was allowed to illustrate this point, and possibly helped shed some light on the humanity of these slaves to those who may not have given them a second glance. This is the sad truth of such an ugly part of our history, but a necessary one to remember if we are to move on and not repeat the same mistakes.
“The African American Family : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site.” Becoming Americans. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site. Web. 31 Jan. 2011. <http://www.history.org/almanack/life/family/black.cfm>.
Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: a History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.
Clarke, Lewis. Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, During a Captivity of More than Twenty-Five Years, Among the Algerines of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America. Boston: David H. Ela, Printer, 1845.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. Print.