September 21, 2010
Summary/Critique: Sandra Gunning
In Sandra Gunning’s article on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl she proposes that Jacobs audience of white Northerners could interpret her story and herself as being “immoral” and as the “contaminated product of slavery’s moral decadence” (332) but what Jacobs message is really meant to display is herself as a mother of sacrifice and as an “abolitionist writer and social critic” (332). Gunning argues that Incidents “is a critique of the traditional practices of reading blackness as a severed relationship between voice and body” (334). Jacobs’s story borders on the line of “delicate” and “indelicate” (337) which could cause a problem if the white Northerners read her story as indelicate and views her as morally incorrect. We only see Jacobs as “delicate” when she is silenced but this allows for “white female readers to exert protective moral influence” (337). Gunning says that Jacobs puts her white Northern readers in a place that if “they shy away from full disclosures… could well be accused of ...public morality” (342). Throughout the essay, Gunning continues to address the aspect of maternity between the white and black women and how they are similar to each other but never see it; “Mrs. Flint is a model of white female ineptitude, she is unable to grasp the connection between herself and Brent” (344). We are shown that woman of both races feel the same yet do not think to connect to each other. She feels the main risk of Jacobs’s story is “the very notion of femininity and true womanhood white Americans have idealized” (344). Gunning feels as if the text questions “the character of a white nation that establishes its moral ideals on a victimized construction of blackness” (346) and that Brent implies “that through white moral neglect, the rape of the slave woman will translate into the rape of the Northern/Southern home” (347). Gunning suggests that Brent helps to make white Northerners listen to her by going back again to her role as a mother but also as a critic and abolitionist.
I think Gunning provides a solid argument with Jacobs writing to secure her place as a critic, abolitionist and mother by making the white Northern woman sympathize with her. Jacobs also allows for the reader to see her story but to also see it from Mrs. Flint; “Mrs. Flint situates Brent in a room adjoining her own keeping a constant watch on the slave victim rather than on her husband” (345). We not only see Jacobs’s truth in her story but the fear of family disgrace by Mrs. Flint and her failure of protecting her home. Her failure stands as a “textual lesson for Brent’s readers about how Northern domestic morality can quickly become ineffective when whites fail to recognize the folly of designating the victim’s testimony as the source of offense” (345). In Mrs. Flints attempts at keeping hard to support her husband, Brent “becomes the only resister holding out for a true account of the events” (345) and readers will choose to listen to Brent who will “guide them, as part of the initial step toward abolition” (346). Later in the essay, Gunning discusses how Brent goes from being abused to the quiet slave girl and then to the role of motherhood. We are to sympathize with Jacobs when she is cut off from her children and hiding for seven years for the sake of their freedom. In this section she “ridicules Northern white metaphoric self-construction as ‘maternal’ saviors (349) and the idea of “liberating maternity as one” (351). White and black woman share the same aspects of maternity and this is how white Northerner’s can come to sympathize with Jacobs.
The thing I most disagreed with in Gunning’s article was her argument of Jacobs being quiet and how it was effective at times for people to listen to that better than what her text reads. Her quietness allows “for bodily horrors” to come out that were “presented in the slave’s silence” (348). I feel that when Jacobs was talking during her narrative I felt a sense of truth and sympathized with her. When we take away her voice, we almost lose the personal touch of the narrative.