Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Depiction Of The Plight Of Female Slaves Essay
The victory of the abolitionists in the American Civil War of between 1861 and 1865 brought the demolition of the slavery institution that tainted the history of the black race. Based on the different ideologies and economies of the Northern and Southern States, the war was acceptable if not expected. After all, their irreconcilable differences stemmed from the slavery system with the plantation owning Southerners advocating its survival and the industrial Northerners insisting on the opposite. That was the economic differences, about the different ideologies; racial prejudice was a significant factor. White supremacy warranted black inferiority and, as a result, slavery was acceptable throughout the United States. However, the Northerners were slowly changing their beliefs, and talk of the brutal nature of slavery furthered their resolution for abolition. From such conditions emerged Harriet Ann Jacobs “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, originally published in 1861 albeit under the fictitious name Linda Brent. Although the book came when abolitionists were already in action, Jacob’s work shed more light on the effects of slavery on black women. Despite expectations that female slaves were better off than their male counterparts, Harriet Jacobs shows that the slavery status warranted equal mistreatment for both genders because women suffered physical and sexual abuse and could not raise their children.
First, the condition of being a slave justified similar injury for both genders at the hands of their masters because, like the men, black women were also subject to physical abuse. In Jacobs’ narration, she tells of Dr. Flint, her master with an affinity for whipping his slaves whenever he saw fit. For instance, his female cook “never sent a dinner to his table without fear and trembling" because he would have her whipped if he did not like the dish (Jacobs 22). Such control by the masters was common in the antebellum south because without the cruelty, slavery would not survive. However, the man did not exert the same treatment on Harriet Jacobs, who was apparently “frequently threatened with punishment” without actual whipping. Slavery epitomized brutality and at the same time, the ultimate possession of a slave by his or her master, however, in most cases, Dr. Flint only used words as a weapon. Such tactics are what Martha Cutter calls “linguistic disempowerment”; because the white master uses language as an “oppressive system of discourse” that damages his slaves’ resolve (215). At this point, it is evident that the slave owners utilized their masculinity to handle their female slaves and one punishment could have a rippling effect on the lot. By extension, the same type of language disempowerment is evident in Mrs. Flint’s resolve to ignore her husband’s antics with the slaves. White supremacy merely gave white men power over the society and their families, hence, a white woman could not control her husband's behavior. For that reason, their only respite was seeing their husbands handle the slaves cruelly, an act that would serve to show she is the favored woman. Dinesh Babu coincides with such notions as he points out, Mrs. Flint and other white women were compensating their “marginalized position by showing and imposing their power on Blacks” (2). That is why Mrs. Flint “could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash” and not lift a finger to aid any of them (Jacobs 22). After all, in the mistress-slave relationship the white mistress “exerted ultimate power and that power could transform sexual jealousy into intense cruelty” (Yildiz and Tanritanir 162). Consequently, through physical abuse, the white masters rendered their female slaves both helpless and fearful, and at the same time, appeased their unhappy wives. When their words did not work, more whipping and flogging was in order.
Additionally, the female slaves were subject to sexual abuse from their masters and other white males. The nature of masculinity automatically put women at the mercy of the men, but the legalization of slavery made them more vulnerable. For that reason, black slaves in the antebellum south faced multiple forms of sexual exploitations than the white women who gained protection under white supremacy. When Harriet Jacobs informs her readers of her master’s sexual advances, she writes:
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 know what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation. (Jacobs 83)
With that in mind, Yildiz and Tanritanir reckon that Harriet Jacob’s narrative manages to associate the freedom of a woman slave with the determination to control "her own sexual activity” (162). By concentrating on the exploitation of black women under the slavery system, Harriet Jacobs succeeds in representing a fear to which the female gender can relate. In the article “Moral Experience in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Way Sherman emphasizes the importance of the text in understanding the antebellum period. Apparently, “not only was slavery's threat more sexual for women, but genteel codes for their behavior were more stringent” because they were mere prey to their white masters (Sherman 162). In other words, even for the black women, the genteel code entailed self-worth and integrity that called for virginity until marriage. However, the slaves could not defend themselves from the cruel actions of their white owners and as a result; most of them opted for degrading solutions. For instance, Harriet Jacobs chooses to take one Mr. Sands as her lover in a bid to dissuade Dr. Flint’s advances (Jacobs 90). Therefore, Jacobs “chooses survival, selfhood, and self-determination” and “through her liaison with Mr. Sands she gains some control over her body” (Sherman 173). In that manner, sexual favors become a bargaining chip for the female slaves because, without those degrading acts, they become live targets for their white masters.
Finally, the most important reason the status of being a slave warranted equal mistreatment for both genders at the hands of their masters is the black race could not raise their children. In fact, children were more of a liability than a cause for joy among the slaves. A good illustration is evident in the case of Aunt Nancy, who was apparently the “factotum of the household” without whom nothing went on well (Jacobs 218). A problem arises in the knowledge that despite her obvious devotion to her owners, Aunt Nancy suffered greatly in their hands. The woman had “given premature birth to six children” after spending a summer and winter lying at the door of Mrs. Flint, who was expectant (Jacobs 217). Throughout the miscarriages, Aunt Nancy was the “night nurse to Mr. Flint's children” without any chances of rest (Jacobs 218). Nancy’s “fertility is literally sacrificed” for that of Mrs. Flint, and her case represents many more in which slavery forces black mothers to overlook their children’s well-being (Sherman 179). Now, in case a mother succeeds in giving birth, her situation is no different if not worse. Female slaves conceived either with fellow slaves or in other cases, such as Harriet Jacob’s, with white men. There was no difference between the two instances because as long as a child possessed black genes, he or she automatically became a slave with the father serving as the master. Slaves who refuted such practices received severe punishment because the speech did “not function as an instrument of power for slaves” and the nature of slavery prohibited such behavior (Cutter 215). At this point, it is safe to draw attention to the fact that children born to slaves were only a concern to the mothers since the fathers only considered them as part of their wealth. Consequently, when Harriet Jacobs had her two children with Mr. Sands, Dr. Flint quickly changed tactics and threatened the well-being of her children as part of his stock of slaves (Jacobs 94). It is no wonder that Harriet Jacobs chose to hide in a small garret on top of her grandmother’s storeroom under stifling conditions for seven years until she could escape with her children (Jacobs 238). It was the ultimate sacrifice because, without her, Dr. Flint did not have the need to sell the children as plantation slaves or torture them.
Conclusively, Harriet Jacob’s autobiography is a revelation into the predicament of slave women because of their gender and race, both of which placed them in a vulnerable position as sexual prey. Perhaps the most significant information in Jacob’s text is the fact that white mistresses also victimized the black women. Evidently, the white masters were at fault for their extramarital affairs, with some cases involving rape, but the women always chose to blame the slaves. The absurdity of that information is the simple fact that the white women were aware of their husband’s whims and at the same time, knew the nature of slave ownership. Consequently, how could one blame a slave for seducing her husband when even the idea of a black woman approaching a white man was an abomination? In that sense, maybe women suffered more than the men did because a black man could choose to deny the paternity of a child and live without having to worry about their future.
Babu, Dinesh P. "Portrayal Of White Women Characters In Harriet A. Jacobs’ Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, Written By Herself, Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig And Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin." International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature (2014): 1-6. Print.
Cutter, Martha J. "Dismantling "The Master's House": Critical Literacy in Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"." Callaloo 19 .1 (1996): 209-225. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl . New York: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
Sherman, Sarah Way. "Moral Experience in Harriet Jacobs's "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"." NWSA Journal 2.2 (1990): 167-185. Print.
Yildiz, Fırat and Tanritanir, Bülent C. "The Way to Freedom in Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents In The Life of A Slave Girl." The Journal of International Social Research 4 .17 (2011): 160-165. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.