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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


African-American Women and the Slave Narrative

Few Americans recognize the power of language as keenly as those of African descent. Instruction in reading and writing was withheld purposely from slaves in the American South, for fear that literacy would give them some degree of control over their destinies; yet even when illiterate, slaves -- like all oppressed people -- understood that their choice of words in any given situation could either imperil or empower them. African-American folklore, for example, found clever ways to imply, rather than directly state, opposition to the slave system. Despite the injunction against slave literacy, many nevertheless did learn to read and write, and some who escaped to the North created a new literary genre, the slave narrative.

The best known of these documents, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, is typically titled, for slaveowners believed the eloquence of the slave narratives proved that they must be forgeries. If these biographical sketches were authentic, they undermined the fundamental foundations upon which the slave system rested, the argument that Africans were in effect incapable of thinking and writing, that they were neither as intelligent nor as fully human as whites.

While narratives like that of Frederick Douglass tend to be epic tales of a black man's heroic triumphs, those written by women take a different form. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, describes the sexual tyranny exerted by white slave masters over their women slaves; her story recounts the kind of domestic violence possible only when an owner assumes a double privilege over a slave because she is both black and female.

Jacobs was born in 1813 in North Carolina and escaped to the North in 1842. In 1852, after years of dodging efforts to recapture her, Jacobs accepted the humiliation of having the Northern woman whose children she had nursed formally buy her and finally give her legal right to control her own person. In 1853 she began to write about her experiences. After two printers went bankrupt before fulfilling their contracts to print her book, Jacobs took a step that characterizes the independence and perseverance she had shown throughout her life and paid to have the book published for herself.

Her story not only amply illustrates the cost of such independence and perseverance, but also how ingenious slaves had to be, how alert to language and nuance, if they were to accomplish anything for themselves. Jacobs demonstrates an acute sensitivity even while operating within an inherently immoral system. She observes, "I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges. So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery." Like many other nineteenth-century women writers, Jacobs published her writing under an assumed name. Calling herself "Linda Brent" and giving all the actors in her story false names as well, she sought not to protect herself but those who had helped her escape from the slave South. Labeled a fiction, Jacobs's book was forgotten. Only in the last decade has her work been rediscovered. Careful research has proved virtually every detail of Harriet Jacobs's remarkable story true.

Those details explain Jacobs's need for subterfuge and indirection. Sexually harassed by the seemingly respectable physician who owned her, she asserted her essential freedom in the only way she could. Forbidden to marry another slave with whom she had fallen in love, she had no real options. Given the inevitability that she would become the sexual property of one white man or another, her only hope of eluding her master's advances was to enter a liaison with a white neighbor. To this relatively more decent man, who went on to father a legitimate family and have a successful Washington career as a congressman from North Carolina, Jacobs bore two children. This attachment infuriated her master but preserved her from his abuse.

Having children to care for gave Jacobs a reason to live; in the midst of her difficulties, she found strength in strong family ties. Her grandmother, who had been freed by her owner, supported herself in her own small house where Jacobs sought refuge for her children and herself. For an incredible seven years, she lived cramped and hidden in a space above a storage cupboard in her grandmother's house. Finally, she employed one more covert tactic and fled to the North where she ultimately was reunited with her children.

The first of the three brief excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl below comes from the preface to the book; the second describes her dilemma; the third shows how the human spirit can survive indignity.

From Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl (1)

Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course.

I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. I was born and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years. Since I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties. . . . I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.

. . . For years, my master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood. The influences of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world. I knew what I did and I did it with deliberate calculation.

But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery. I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the master proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless in my despair.

. . . . Among others, it chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother, and often spoke to me in the street. He became interested for me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.

So much attention from a superior person was, of course, flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was an educated and eloquent gentleman; too eloquent, alas, for the poor slave girl who trusted in him. Of course I saw whither all this was tending. I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. 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. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy. There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible. . . .

The crisis of my fate now came so near that I was desperate. I shuddered to think of being the mother of children that should be owned by my old tyrant. I knew that as soon as a new fancy took him, his victims were sold far off to get rid of them; especially if they had children. I had seen several women sold, with his babies at the breast. He never allowed his offspring by slaves to remain long in sight of himself and his wife. Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon. I also felt quite sure that they would be made free. With all these thoughts revolving in my mind, and seeing no other way of escaping the doom I so much dreaded, I made a headlong plunge. Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. I know I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day. Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others. . . .

[Years later] Christmas was approaching. Grandmother brought me materials, and I busied myself making some new garments and little playthings for my children. Were it not that hiring day is near at hand, and many families are fearfully looking forward to the probability of separation in a few days, Christmas might be a happy season for the poor slaves. Even slave mothers try to gladden the hearts of their little ones on that occasion. Benny and Ellen had their Christmas stockings filled. Their imprisoned mother could not have the privilege of witnessing their surprise and joy. But I had the pleasure of peeping at them as they went into the street with their new suits on. . . .

Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus. Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction. They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows' tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while others strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. . . .

Christmas is a day of feasting, both with white and colored people.

Questions for Discussion

  1. "Linda Brent" masks her name; she masks her presence by hiding in an almost cripplingly small space, and in order to go outdoors, she masks her sex by disguising herself as a boy. The Christmas festivities described here combine European and African masking rituals in a mixture that can still be observed in Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. Why is the idea of masquerade so evocative in this story of undesired "subterfuge"?
  2. Masking can also be a function of language. Discuss Jacobs's use of euphemism in terms of the audience she chooses.
  3. Frederick Douglass stresses the slaveowners' efforts to separate their slaves from their own family and culture. How does this narrative show the thwarting of those efforts?
  4. Jacobs believes that slave women ought not to be judged by the same standard as others. Do you agree that people can only be judged fairly according to the circumstances of their lives?
  5. What women in late twentieth-century America have been exploited in social and sexual matters like Jacobs in the mid-nineteenth?


(1) The text is that of the original 1861 edition, as reprinted by AMS Press, New York, in 1973.