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Essay: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Harriet Jacobs Explores the Psychological Oppression of Slavery

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Slavery essays

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Incidents in the life of a slave Girl

The story of many individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and much more have been shared throughout history. It is known that such individuals have suffered because of slavery and discrimination against their race. However, Harriet Jacobs story is quite different in the aspect of her sharing how slavery was not only a physical oppression but the slaves mental health and gender also became a contribution to the anguish of a slave.

  In the Incidents in the life of a slave girl by Harriet Jacobs, Jacobs focus was to show white and free women how lucky they were for not being oppressed by a master and to have the law on their side. Even though Jacobs did not suffer much in the physical enslavement like others, her punishment was much worse in that it was psychological. Jacobs was not known to perform hard labor like the rest of her friends but she did spend most of her time mentally deliberating over her situation and how to get away from it, even when it felt like it was impossible. “I longed for someone to confide in. I would have given the world to have laid my head on my grandmother’s faithful bosom, and tell her all my troubles. But Dr. Flint swore he would kill me if I was not as silent as the grave” (Jacobs, 27). Jacob demonstrates how confiding in someone about their situation could even get them killed if their master was to be questioned or confronted by someone else. Slaves were afraid of their master and any thought of getting physically punished ceased them from acting on the circumstances. To prove this Jacob states that [she] dreaded the consequences of a violent outbreak; and both [her] pride and fear kept [her] silent (Jacobs, 27).

During the time of slavery, violence was important to slave owners. It not only created fear amongst the slaves, but also physical and psychological control was critical to the owners to be able to maintain white power over the slave society.  White southerners created many scientific systems to punish their slaves, such as the pushing system, and corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was known to be more effective because it involved whipping, bloodhounds, and sexual assault. Jacobs describes many different punishments that were forced upon a slave who dared to disobey their master. “A favorite one was to tie a rope around a man’s body, and suspended him from the ground, A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh” (Jacobs, 41).  Slave owners were never questioned over the cruelty imposed on their slaves, because slaves were not considered humans but just a piece of property. Another severe punishment imposed on a slave was when “after receiving hundreds of lashes, [the owner believed the punishment was] too mild for the poor slaves offense. Therefore, he decided… to have him placed between the screw of the cotton gin… [having] the body [later] found partly eaten by rats and vermin” (Jacobs, 43).   

Gender and sexuality also played a big role in the narrative of Harriet Jacob. Even though slaves were just known to be property, their gender had a lot to do with the amount the sellers could get. If a male was strong or not, most white southerners would consider purchasing them, because men could later be built and used for any job. A girl, on the other hand, was mainly purchased if she was beautiful and could reproduce and provided more men for the labor field. For instance, when a slave owner stated that “he would give any price if the handsome lad was a girl” (Jacobs, 23). In the eyes of every female slave, slavery had even corrupted their beauty. Jacob states that “If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse”. Beauty created hostile situations for female slaves and constantly reminded them that they belong to their master. It also alludes that once a female could begin to sexually reproduce, she would be raped by the master and no one would question those actions. “The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the inquisitions. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mother dare to tell who was the father of their children?… No… They knew too well the terrible consequences” (Jacobs, 32).  In addition, female women were known to use their sexuality as an advantage over their masters or anyone else. Harriet Jacobs states, “I felt confident I should obtain the boon. I also felt quite sure that they would be made free… and seeing no other way of escaping the doom. I made a headlong plunge” (Jacobs, 49). Referring to the idea of her having children, it would anger her master and based on what she had witnessed that such children and women would be sent away. It not only offered an opportunity to get away but to offer her children freedom.

Jacobs had numerous opportunities to escape but once she became a mother she chose to give her freedom away to secure the freedom of her children. “In the morning, I watched for my children… and presently two sweet little faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there… How I longed to tell them I was there!” (Jacobs, 97). Jacobs role as a mother and situation was very rare because most mothers would have their children take away and sold to other slave owners. Family, however, was a very important factor in Harriet Jacobs narrative. She mentions how many times she had suffered because she was unable to do nothing for her brother or her grandmother.  Jacobs describes her love for her uncle when she says “If there was one pure… I believed it to be Benjamins heart… whom I loved with all the ardor of a girls first love. My owner knew of it and sought to render me miserable” (Jacobs, 19).  Additionally, she also spoke of how “her [grandmothers] reproaches fell so hot and heavy… [and how] the tears were running down her furrowed checks, scorched [her] like fire” (Jacobs, 50). Harriet Jacobs had just finished telling her grandmother what she had done in order to get her freedom, which was to end up pregnant with a child. However, Jacobs grandmother did not see this as an appropriate decision and reprehended her for her actions. Jacobs respected and loved her grandmother so much she begged for her pity and forgiveness.

For the most part gender and sexuality, along with motherhood and family played a big role in Harriet Jacobs narrative. However, physical and psychological punishment stood out the most and was the most important to what is known as slavery. Not only did most slaves suffer physically because of the brutality of their owners but they were deprived and forced to endure, gory beatings and mental degradation. Many of the slaves were deprived of legal rights and protection, not permitting them to get married, not being protected from sexual abuse, and being sold as if they were property or animals. Families were torn apart and many even prayed for death, this proves that they were better losing their lives than to be physically and psychologically abused.

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