A poignantly moving tale of a woman’s courage and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl undoubtedly serves as an inspiration for those who endeavor to rise beyond their initial station in life on the way to achieving one’s dreams. Though the author claims it to be a historical account, it could easily pass off for a work of fiction in the tradition of the historical novel – a romanticizing American life and history with its tale of noble suffering, heroic daring and unwavering zeal.
Perhaps more significantly, its merit lies in offering the reader the painful truth of the slave experience through the eyes of an African-American slave girl. As Jacobs narrates, she was born a slave but she never knew it until six years of happy childhood had passed away (Jacobs, p. 1). Though they were all slaves in the family, she was so fondly shielded from that fact and they appear to have lived normal lives that she never dreamed she was “a piece of merchandise trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment” (Jacobs, p.
1). That is, until her mother died and her life took a turn for the worse, experiencing first hand what it meant to be a slave in those days. Because of the way she was raised, it would appear that Linda Brent is exceptional for a woman of her social stature. Having received the rudiments of a basic education at the hands of her family’s original owners, she is clear thinking and possesses a keen intellect.
Not surprisingly, she was able to transcend the limitations of race, class and gender and grasp the reality that women, regardless of color, race and stature, share the common experience of victimization at the hands of a male-dominated, patriarchal society. Moreover, by virtue of the loving relationships she had established early on with her family and immediate community, she is quite capable of empathy. Her initial understanding of the nature of slavery, though nonetheless negative, did not prevent her from maintaining a positive outlook towards life, notwithstanding her position in the social hierarchy.
This however has been severely challenged throughout the years of her ordeal. Due to the many betrayals she had experienced in her lifetime, she learns to distrust people, and even though this is gradually tempered by the formation of positive relationships, she retains her hesitant, guarded approach to life. The book’s main strength lies in its rich narratives, the vivid portrayal of the female slave experience, and its use of the female point of view in the narration of her tale. In terms of limitations, the book would have problems in its illustration of the slave experience as representative of the larger Africa-America black community.
Linda Brent and her family could be considered among the lucky few fate seemed to have favored among the millions more of their kind, who, though some might have endeavored to attain their freedom were faced with more dire, less relenting circumstances which made freedom remain a dream for them. A cursory glance at historical accounts of slavery would reveal that many have attempted to escape from their masters, with a considerable number dying in the attempt. In Jacobs’ particular tale, the experience of women in bondage is illuminated.
Yet more than a narration of physical infliction of pain, torture and misery – the often-told tale of American slavery – what is striking is how she makes the reader comprehend that the most devastating blow endured and inflicted upon female slaves is that of the continuing existence of a system recognizing, even illicitly sanctioning concubinage and licentiousness among white males, the double standard of the times which make it doubly hard for women, most especially slaves, to live a decent, dignified existence wherein they could realize their true worth as individuals.
For the slaves in America’s colonial past, every day was deplorable. Suffering in its various forms – physical, mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual – was common-day fare subject to the wiles and dispositions of their masters. For both men and women, manual labor, e. g. working the fields in the plantations of the South, was a large component of the day. As Jacobs (p. 12) illustrates: “On a farm, they work until the corn and cotton are laid. They then have two holidays. Some masters give them a good dinner under the trees.
This over, they work until Christmas Eve. If no heavy charges are meantime brought against them, they are given four or five holidays, whichever the master or overseer may think proper. ” For the women, this was often aggravated by (more often than not) unwarranted sexual advances, if not from their masters, the other male members of the household, or among fellow slaves. New Year’s Day was a terribly appalling affair, for hiring day at the South took place every first of January. To the slave mother, New Year’s Day comes laden with peculiar sorrows:
“She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies” (Jacobs, p. 13). Children born as slaves were sold off at the auction block, for they belonged to their master just as their parents did, for him to do with as he pleases. For is that not the nature of property?
Slaves were treated as such, not regarded as human beings, but rather little more than animals to be set to labor upon the fields, to assist in the keeping of the household, to run errands and perform manual labor deemed unworthy of the white master’s unsoiled hands. Those same white hands were quick with the whip for every transgression committed by an erring slave, and a mouth which reserved the foulest of words to further degrade the slave and instill in his/her consciousness his/her lack of worth, how inferior and far beneath their master they were.
The ensuing slave consciousness formed from this inhuman treatment, nourished throughout a life of bondage and suffering, is bitter and bleak, their minds ignorant and uncultured, deprived of the conditions which give human existence its dignity, the individual his self-worth (Fowler and Fowler, p. 2). Yet in this condition of bondage, in their shared experience of misery, pain and wretchedness, they became increasingly aware of their sorry plight, and learned to yearn for freedom (Genovese, p. 114). The first stirrings of rebelliousness began to beat in their hearts yearning for a life free from bondage and servitude.
In this shared experience, the slave community developed a culture distinctly its own, reverberating with the influence of their African origins infused with their newfound material conditions in American soil. It is the experience of a particular slave girl by the name of Linda Brent which we shall explore in detail. Jacobs’ work, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, utilizes the literary form of the slave narrative, a form of autobiography with a unique structure and distinctive themes tracing the narrator’s path form slavery to freedom.
It traces the narrator’s journey from poverty to freedom as her determination to overcome societal and self-imposed limitations leads her on to prevail despite her harrowing circumstances. It is quite a moving and inspiring tale, and the author succeeds in painting a deft picture of the real-life suffering of men and women in bondage who were born, raised and died as slaves at the hands of their masters in the sprawling plantations of the South.
Though the slave narrative is recognized as a powerful literary form with obvious merits as a tool for anti-slavery and human rights causes as it compellingly illustrates how individuals could rise above the depths of their despair and overcome seemingly impossible odds, it too has its flaws as a resource for fully understanding the complex institution of slavery.
At one point, it perpetuates the myth that individuals can overcome established social structures and societal features disadvantageous to marginalized groups, e. g. racism against colored peoples, through sheer determination, will power, a never-say-die attitude, and a perpetually rosy outlook in life that things could only get better. In actual truth, for most slaves the matter of winning one’s freedom is a whole lot more complicated than what most narratives seem to suggest in their “success stories. ” The abolition of slavery was not simply a case of dissolving a centuries-old institution due to the influence of writers who decided to go public with their personal accounts of the evils of slavery.
In a way, the slave narrative is deceptive in its promise of deliverance (giving a sense of false hope) to blacks while reinforcing the notions of a superiority complex of whites over other colored peoples as they could always say that those who fail to break down society’s barriers, e. g. racial boundaries and the gap between rich and poor, to achieve success have only themselves to blame for their failures. It thus becomes a case of “If others can’t do it, why can’t I? ” Yet the situation is inherently more complex than this.
In analyzing slavery one has to consider the larger macro factors – economics, political institutions, cultural norms, ideology, etc. – as shaping the micro ones. That is, in the case of the slave narrative one needs to situate the personal accounts in the larger social context of the period, the interplay between the personal and the historical, personal troubles and public issues, the intertwining of biography and history. Moreover, one could also apply a feminist reading in Jacobs’ text for as Linda laments the birth of her daughter Ellen, she remarks how “…slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” (Jacobs, p. ).
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrates how slavery proved to be a more wretched state for women who had to endure the same dehumanizing cruelty and brutality inflicted on men, as well as the torment of sexual abuse at the hands of their male masters and the anguish of being taken away from their children. Their pain and degradation were further compounded as they suffered being used as vessels of lust for their masters, breeding bastards to add to their master’s stock but denied a mother’s right to care for her children.
The children born from such unions, Linda chillingly points out, was more often than not sold to protect the honor of the slave owner’s wife faced with the undeniable living testimony to her husband’s lust. Addressing the issue of human bondage from a woman’s perspective, Jacobs attempts to get through to her readers, particularly the women of the Northern states, to make them aware of their responsibility to make their voices heard in protesting against slavery for their silence would be in support of the perpetuation of slavery as an institution.
Her tale emphasizes the struggle of a particular woman (herself) to protect her family, in the process learning to fight for her freedom to be an independent individual in control of her own life, and enticing her own family and community to join in the struggle for the emancipation and liberation of slaves. All said, in its own way Jacobs’ work has significantly contributed to the success of the movement to abolish slavery in the United States of America, and for that her efforts have been well-rewarded with the renewed scholarly interest in her work. Works Cited Andrews, William L.
Classic African American Women’s Narratives. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2003. Bell, Ella Louise. Myths, Stereotypes and Realities of Black Women. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 40, No. 2, 146-159, 2004. Fowler, Lois J. and David H. Fowler, eds. Revelations of Self: American Women in Autobiography. New York: SUNY Press. Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Classic Slave Narratives. Signet Classic, 2003. Genovese, Eugee. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Press, 1974. Gronniosaw, James Albert, Olaudah Equiano, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, William W.
Brown, Henry Bibb, Sojourner Truth, William and Ellen Craft, Harriet A. Jacobs and Jacob Green. Slave Narratives. Library of America, 2002. Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1988. Mccaskill, Barbara. “Yours very truly: Ellen Craft – the fugitive as Text and Artifact. ” African American Review, Vol. 28, 1994. Randle, Gloria T. “Between the Rock and the Hard Place: Mediating spaces in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. ” African America Review, Vol. 33, 1999. Yetman, Norman R. ed. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. Courier Dover Publications
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