Harriet Jacobs: Voice of Determination & Resistance
Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl expresses the author’s attempt to present to white audiences, mainly middle-class women, the many evils of slavery. Jacobs does this through eyewitness testimony of the horrors that she has been victim to as well as witnessed, and her narrative is now regarded as a groundbreaking literary achievement. What is most significant is that Jacobs presents an argument against slavery that could not be formulated by any other individual, unless they too had experienced the same form of oppression. This is what separates Jacobs’s narrative from the literary works of white abolitionists, even the independent works of Lydia Marie Child, known for editing and providing the preface to Incidents. White female abolitionists can attempt to expose the ills of antebellum society, which attributes virtue and womanhood only to white women, but they cannot reject this system outright. They remain aware that it is this system that defines them as women and thereby empowers them as guardians of the domestic sphere. They are implicated nonetheless. Jacobs, on the other hand, bases her argument on her experience as a subjugated woman and reveals to her audience how white society’s system of feminine value and virtue not only excludes the female slaves from such consideration, but this system also unjustly perpetuates the power of white men, making tense the relations between white women and female slaves in the process.
Aside from editing Jacobs’s narrative, Lydia Child also created other abolitionist literature like her book The Patriarchal Institution, as Described by Members of Its Own Family. It is interesting to consider the differences of this independent work and Incidents. They both provide experiences of slave women, but there is a distinct withholding that is evident in Child’s work. In providing the observations of another white abolitionist that had once lived in the South, Child cites:
The female slave knows that she is a slave. If her master casts upon her a desiring eye, she knows that she must submit. Still, she feels her degradation, and so do others with whom she is connected. White mothers and daughters of the South have suffered under this custom for years. I cannot use too strong language on this subject, for I know it will meet a heartfelt response from every Southern woman. (29)
In Incidents, Jacobs presents a passage that seems to coincide with Child’s. She reflects on Dr. Flint’s attempt at breaking down her resistance to his advances:
My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? There is no shadow of law to protect the female slave from insult, from violence, or even from death. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. (27)
Child’s passage does well to capture and report on the cruelty that females suffer at the hands of their masters, but Jacobs goes a step further and comments on the tension between the female slave and the mistress. It seems that Child is completely unaware of this imbalance, as she attempts to draw a parallel between the suffering of “white mothers and daughters” with that of female slaves. Jacobs does well to highlight how the white mistress becomes part of the system of abuse that maintains the master’s domination over his female slaves. Where Childs is withholding, Jacobs makes it clear that “womanhood” does not carry the same burden for slave women and white women alike. Sadly enough, the burden of the slave woman is seldom lightened by that of the white woman closest to her.
Saidiya V. Hartman points out in her article Seduction and the Ruses of Power that white women were in fact enraged by the sexual arrangements of slavery; however, they were generally inclined to “target slave women as the agents of their husbands downfall” (545). There was clearly no compassionate regard shown the female slave by her mistress, as slave women were considered overly seductive, thereby allowing their sexually abusive masters to remain guilt-free in antebellum society. Hartman also goes on to point out antebellum laws that specifically protected white women from the sexual advances of black men but showed no concern, legal or otherwise, for black women that were sexually assaulted by white men.
Throughout the narrative, Jacobs appeals to her readers to sympathize with her not as an individual but as one suffering alongside many others. “Reader it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery,” she says. “I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered” (29). Even in her appeals to sympathy, there is an element of distancing that is used whenever Jacobs asks her audience one of her “could you have” questions, oftentimes with regards to their ability to relate to any given slavery experience. Of course the answer would surely be no, because the intended audience is not made up of slaves nor former slaves but white women that were far separated from the slave experience. These white women, like Child and perhaps even the jealously violent mistresses all throughout the South, could identify with certain general aspects of womanhood but remained significantly different, a condition that might have oftentimes led to indifference on the part of those unaffiliated with the abolitionist cause. Jacobs does not try to cover up this difference. In fact, she does well to remind her audience of that difference, as in her remarks about the reunion with her son after her escape: “Oh reader, can you imagine my joy? No, you cannot, unless you have been a slave mother” (173).
Instead of overlooking the significant difference and tension among slave women and white women, as what might have been suggested by Child, Jacobs seems to make it a central point of the dynamic at work in her narrative. She is not only presenting a melancholy story of her misfortunes and sufferings, but she is also citing her achievements and small victories. She rejects and resists both absolutely and successfully. Jacobs could not have done this if she had been intent on adhering to social restraints and limitations observed by white women of the period. She had to represent the Other in order to persevere despite all adversity and ultimately enjoy the much sought after luxury of freedom.
Child, Lydia. The Patriarchal Institution, as Described by
Members of its Own Family. Ed. Martha Cutter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Seduction and the Ruses of Power.”
Callaloo 19.2 (1996) 537-60.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed.
Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard University