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Essay: In Slavery: Exploring Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Its Impact on Womanhood

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Hannah Baggs


HIST 308

March 7, 2018

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Slavery gripped the United States by the throat throughout the 1800s. Although there were radical differences in the North and South the whole country fell guilty to the slave trade, resulting in the mistreatment of a countless number of slaves. Harriet Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent in her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs shares her experience of slavery to enlighten her audience, primarily white women in the North. Jacob’s narrative, directed at Northern women, argues that women in slavery face unfair disadvantages that make it impossible for them to live up to the widely accepted ideals of virtue and womanhood.

Jacobs directs her narrative to white women in the North in hopes she can exemplify the humanity of the slaves and in return receive the women’s empathy. Jacobs writes, “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” (26). Because of the strong male dominance in the slave trade Jacobs expands on the sexual assault, lust and target on female virtue in hopes the women can relate. Women in the North held a high regard for moral influence on the community, and encouraged a domestic lifestyle (HIST 308 Lecture 15). Because sharing opinions and influencing others was primarily accepted in the North it was easier to target these women, rather than those in the South.

Slavery was a widespread epidemic in a continuously growing country. It was not an issue that only affected the slaves, but also impacted the actions of everyone in the country. Jacobs explains how slavery made men vulgar and cruel as they focused on lust and sensual feelings in regards to their female slaves. Sons took after their fathers and began to abuse the power over slaves they received as they grew up. These thoughts spread to the women in the family making them treat the slaves with disgust and jealousy. The position of ownership in a slave relationship encouraged the men to abuse their powers by forcing lustful actions onto their slaves (HIST 308 Lecture 8.) By doing so they are perpetrating an unhealthy relationship between sex and power for men.

 Jacobs continues with, “The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will”(76). These two excerpts exemplify the relationship men create around their position of power in pushing toward the availability of sex. These lead the slave owner’s wives to become jealous of the slave women because their husband’s interest is now on the slave rather than on them. This may be because the women were new and exciting, or because the owners knew they could control the outcome easily.  However, these are the conditions that lead to the continuous cycle of mistreatment of slaves.

Similar to the reality of lustful slave owners is the story in Godey’s Lady Book ‘The Constant; Or, The Anniversary Present.” In this a man, Willis Grant, is engaged to a woman whom he eventually marries. Although she is loving and devoted to him he finds himself being tempted by work and other distractions. This leads him to go to Europe. Women were held in such high regard. There were specific expectations, which, if they strayed from those, they were deemed to be non-virtuous. However, the men had few guidelines of how they must treat their wives and often used slaves to exploit their desires, while still upholding the white woman’s virtue.

Jacobs writes about the hardships confronting female slaves. There are expectations and boundaries they face within womanhood and slavery both separately and together. Women were bound to the ideas of virtue that consist of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity (Welter). However, women in the slave trade didn’t have the opportunity to choose to live a virtuous life. These women faced sexual harassment, manipulation and mistreatment from their slave owners and their wives. Jacobs writes, “But, O, you 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”! (78). Jacobs chooses to address the audience of white middle-class women by discussing the hardships they understand, but expressing they have the right to choose, unlike the slave women. Each white woman has the opportunity to choose to lead a virtuous life. However, slave women are often mistreated and abused by their owners, including sexual assault and rape. If they chose not to participate in the lustful actions their slave owners put on them they would be abused and mistreated. This leaves them to either attempt to live a virtuous life and get beaten, or they will participate in the lustful ways and have their virginity and sexual purity stolen from them. This lack of choice robs them of the opportunity to live what is known to be a virtuous life of womanhood.

Barbara Welter discusses these pressures women experience in her article “The Cult of True Womanhood.” She explains that a woman’s place is traditionally in her home, with her children and friends. However, slaves didn’t have the opportunity to stay home and educate or raise their own families. When they had children they were put back to work and those children were born into slavery. Welter also points out virtue includes beauty, but Jacobs says if you are beautiful you become the object of lust for your slave owner and their sons, which leads to the cycle of bribery, denial and punishment.

Women who were forced to participate in sexual endeavors often found themselves bearing children as a result. However, they didn’t have the opportunity to bring their children up in a healthy environment. Slave women often had to give up their breast milk in order to give it to the white babies because their lives were deemed more valuable. This view may be held because a slave mother’s children were born into slavery. Jacobs writes, “Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery” (87). These hardships often leave slave mothers wishing for their children to die rather than live in slavery conditions.

Although slave women were continuously degraded in their community; they also had access to a group of strong women with whom they could confide in. Jacobs was able to find this strength within her grandma, Aunt Martha. She was enslaved for most of her life and after she was set free she remained mentally chained because the idea of freedom often frightened her. Jacobs looked up to her and used her as a tool to help her escape. Living through slavery she exemplifies to Jacobs what she does not want her life to end up like. Although Aunt Martha is a strong-willed woman, she cannot allow herself to truly be free. She does have an edge though because her virtue has been ruined previously through slavery. She allows herself to stick up for herself and her granddaughter. She tells Dr. Flint, their owner, that he needs to go take care of his wife and daughter, instead of being in their home. These actions allow Jacobs to have a woman who has gone through a similar experience, yet builds her up and empowers her to pave a way forward in freedom.

Jacob was lucky enough to escape slavery by hiding in her grandma’s crawlspace; however, her life wasn’t easy for her or anyone planning to break the chains of captivity.  She writes, “Reader, I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den (60). She explains that even when people are brave and smart enough to make a successful escape they are often brought back, or treated unjustly by those in the North. She chooses to step back from her own story to directly address the audience. She reminds them that as horrific as her story reads it is a true account. She also wants to draw the attention to the reader in order to turn their attention to the actions those in the North take against the slaves. By placing this in the center of the book they will have already read the majority of the mistreatment she has experienced. This tactic draws on the empathy she hopes to receive from the women she writes to, and in return taking steps to solve these mistreatment issues.

Jacobs’ narrative depicts the realistic mistreatment, hardships and expectations women in slavery faced everyday. By expressing the honest and painful truth she hopes women in the North will read it and make an impact. By spreading it throughout their community they can impact the slave owners and others that are perpetrating the circle of inhumane actions on the slaves. Women like Jacobs were those who paved the way to freedom for future generations by shedding light onto the brutal truths of the slave trade.

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