Slavery will always remain a black page of American history and a huge shame on the country that was even then considered one of the most developed, intellectual and strong. People were coming here from all over the world, hoping to achieve their bravest dreams. But slavery was something that spoiled this beautiful picture. It destroyed many lives by separating mothers from their children, and wives from their husbands. Africans were just imported in the U.S., and they were starting to create their own culture away from home. During their lifetime, many slaves wrote the narratives about their lives. These narratives are still the most truthful accounts of how people of color, especially women, were treated in the society. Not only were they discriminated based on their race, but they were also constantly sexually abused by their masters. They had children with men that were never going to take care of them and run families with them. Black women didn’t get a chance to become successful mothers, not mentioning the fact that they couldn’t build any career. They were used as something that can be thrown away. In this paper, I’m going to analyze “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs and figure out how the book illustrated this drastic situation in the United Stated nearly two hundred years ago.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” is one of such accounts on the lives of slaves that were written by a slave. This book is about one destiny of one girl, but it is simultaneously about everything. It concentrates on one person, but it talks for all the black female slaves in the States. The most striking line that illustrates the author’s attitude towards the issue of slavery and sexism can be found in the very beginning. Jacobs gives a very strong example of how masters behaved with the slaves that they no longer needed. She writes, “Slaveholders have a method, peculiar to their institution, of getting rid of old slaves, whose lives have been worn out in their service. I knew an old woman, who for seventy years faithfully served her master. She had become almost helpless, from hard labor and disease. Her owners moved to Alabama, and the old black woman was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for her” (Jacobs 27.) When they were young, black females were used for sexual satisfaction of their masters and for hard labor, but when they got old, no one needed them anymore. Of course, for the author the question was deeply personal. At some point she would became old herself, and she did ask herself a question: “What will be next? Where will I go? Will I ever see my children’s children growing up?” The book raised these questions, but didn’t seem to answer them. Partly because many people never saw their families again even after the Abolition. So was there any answer at all? Who was the author and why could she relate so much to the contemporary issues?
Harriet Jacobs was an African-American woman who was born in 1813 in North Carolina. During that time, slavery flourished and was an essential part of the developing States as it held its economy together. By that time, for many Americans, slavery became quite a normal thing. Many of them neither questioned it nor wanted it to be gone. Sadly, not everyone was concerned about the lives of slaves. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was Harriet Jacobs’ personal story. It’s known that the narratives about slavery were very popular in the beginning of the African culture in the U.S. But the books written by slaves weren’t welcome, and Jacobs had to come up with a pseudonym. Shortly, she became known as Linda Brent.
All the characters that were present in the book existed in Jacobs’ life. For example, Mr. Sands, a white neighbor with whom Linda (Harriet) had two children, was a real person. Dr. Flint’s image was based on her real master who raped her at the age of sixteen, and had been abusing her for a long time before that. Dr. Flint is one of the main characters that were used to show a typical while American of that time, who owned slaves and didn’t care about anything but getting profit from them. And the profit should have been both financial and sexual. From the book we understand that Dr. Flint was trying to look kind in comparison to other slave masters. He never punished Linda, but she was still afraid of him. Linda vibrantly described how Dr. Flint punished her for falling in love with a free black man, started hating on her and destroying her pride. Another horrible question that came to the girl’s mind was, “Why does the slave ever love?” (Jacobs 58). She didn’t see the reason in loving someone as her desire to be married was made fun of, and she almost died because of it. Dr. Flint ruined her dreams about having a family and being bought by her husband to live a free life. As she didn’t have a choice, she had an affair with her white neighbor that I already mentioned – Mr. Sands. They had two children, but soon Linda was separated from them. When she was taken away, her life became even worse. She spent her life in constant fear to be caught, which her book is filled with. After living in a small room of her Grandmother’s house for several years, Linda became disabled as she didn’t stand straight for all these years that she spent there.
The connection between Linda and her children and the way they are torn apart is a very strong evidence of sexism and racism in the book as well. During that time, slave owners didn’t really care whose children they were buying and where their parents were. If they needed one child, they would ignore the fact that there were six of them in a single family. They would just take one. One by one, children would be bought, and that’s how many families were ruined. Ruthlessness of the slave owners was shocking. Linda was also separated from her children who remained a part of Dr. Flint’s property. Interestingly enough, only after giving birth did Linda become seriously concerned about the issue of social injustice. Simultaneously, children turned out to be something that stopped her from getting killed. Linda didn’t want her children to live the same life, but she also didn’t want them to live the life without her. And this dilemma was one of the strongest themes of the book. What was more important for a woman – children or society? Did she really have a choice, or was the question already answered for her?
Here, I would like to bring up another article that can become a strong evidence of sexism in the United States, and that is Elizabeth Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self”, written in 1892. This article was written not a long time after “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was published. In the article, Stanton, a famous feminist, talked about how women suffered because of lack of education and lack of life choices. It seemed like all the choices were already made for them. Stanton was a white American woman who complained about social injustice. The reason I brought this article up was to contrast it with Jacobs’ book and show that the problems described in the book were much more compelling. “The Solitude of Self” proved the existence of sexism in the New World even among the white population. Stanton complained about the fact that uneducated women would not be able to “earn their bread” (Stanton 64) by the time their children were grown up and their husbands were gone or retired. But what would Stanton say if she looked into the lives of Black females at that time! It was much harder, and the question of education wasn’t even close yet. The question of freedom was raised. Freedom that even wild animals got for free, and people did not. During the time of Stanton, white women were protected from sexual abuse by the law. When it came to abusing a black woman, it didn’t even raise outrage in the society. It was just a normal thing that remained active after the Abolition, and although the government claimed that the slaves and their former masters were now equal, racism and sexism kept flourishing. They would be flourishing before and after Civil Rights movement, up to this day. Stanton complained about how women were considered less smart then men, and the latter were often given the best jobs. When it came to black women, they were considered to be totally illiterate (they were prohibited to study) and the question of taking their opinions into consideration wasn’t even there yet.
Another article that can be compared to “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” would be “Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman”, written by an anonymous author named Elizabeth. This article is much more related to the book as it was written by a former slave too. For Elizabeth, just like for Jacobs, father played an important part of her life. Her childhood was relatively calm, but further in life, she got separated from her family and was forced to convert to Christianity, which was something unsuitable for the traditions of her family. She was sold many times, just like Jacob’s character, and she also finally got the rights to her freedom.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, just like two other articles that I have discussed here, let the readers know what life was like two hundred years ago. The number doesn’t sound huge, and the most horrible part is that we are quite close to the times when slavery flourished and African-American people were treated like if they were not humans, or like if they were guilty of being on this foreign land full of cruel people and so far away from home. Two hundred years went by like minutes, and some of the mistakes are still not corrected. All of the authors raise questions of racism, sexism, or both. The questions were asked decades ago, but sadly they still remain open today. The modern society is moving in the right direction, but it’s going to take us a lot of time before we actually grant everybody without any exception with social justice.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. N.p.: Penguin Group US, 2015. Print.
Elizabeth, Old. Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman. Phil.: Collins, 1863. Print.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, and Harriot Stanton Blatch. Solitude of Self; an Address Delivered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York?: n.p., 1910. Print.