Essay, Research Paper
Harriet Jacobs wrote the story of her life of enslavement, mistreatment, confinement and eventual freedom shortly before the civil war. Incident in the life of slave girl was intended to be read as a slave narrative and, as such to provide a historical documentation of what the reality of slavery entailed, at least for a young woman. It is also a political manifesto in that it argues that the realities of slavery were not much different from the Northern social norms of segregation. Her story is at once a confession and a history of a child taught a set of family values and morals and how these had to be set aside in order to maintain a little of self-worth and dignity under the constraints (legal and social) of slavery.
The chapter “Still in Prison” uses imagery that addresses the irony of Jacobs’ ‘freedom’ as a prisoner in her grandmother’s garret. She was imprisoned, “yet the laws allowed him (her owner) to be out in the free air, while I, guiltless of crime, was pent up here, as the only means of avoiding the cruelties the laws allowed him to inflict upon me!” Her actions to protect herself, her moral beliefs and her family against Flint’s rape attempts can be deemed criminal by Flint. Following the birth of her child, she describes his outburst in legal terminology: “Then he launched out upon his usual themes, my crimes against him, and my ingratitude for his forbearance. The laws were laid down to me anew, and I was dismissed.” By this it can be seen that she, at least in part, is directing her narrative toward the legal system as it emerged before the Civil War, hoping to influence it toward change.
She attempts to do so by providing a description that has two purposes: reveal her as a normal person, in the pursuit of normal activities such as family life and learning, in order to argue that the laws of slavery were in opposition to the ethical foundation of democracy and to reveal the injustices of the law as interpreted for the White individual and against the Black. Her conclusion makes the connection between external laws and practices and internal moral and, or, ethical reaction.
In terms of her family life Jacobs was “unusually fortunate” in the fact that her nuclear family was intact and could function as a family. She did not even realize she was a slave until the death of her mother. She states, “When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave.”
After her mother’s death, she joins the life, and family, of the owner. The mistress becomes the substitute mother, providing the nurturing no longer available from her own mother, “My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free from care as that of any free-born white child…………I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me.”
She leaves to live with her grandmother after the death of her father, finding yet another ‘normal’ life where morality and piety were taught and valued. However, she vehemently opposes her grandmother’s acceptance of slavery as “God’s will,” vowing, “He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave”
As she enters puberty her status as a slave and her lack of legal standing and recourse is brought into the forefront of her reality as the master, Dr. Flint, pursues her in the hope of sexual intercourse. “At 14,” she writes, “the war of my life had begun” She asserts that “the secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition” , referring specifically to the usual fate of slave girl, which included the complete powerlessness with regard to sexual exploitation “Even the little child….will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such a one among the slave…She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child”
The legal rape of a slave girl is ignored or denied within the context of the social system that includes slavery and laws by which the slave has no recourse or right. She may have had religious principles inculcated by a pious mother or grandmother, or a caring mistress; she may also have a lover, whose good opinions are dear to her heart; or the men who have power over her may be despicable to her. However, resistance is hopeless. Her one recourse to having sexual relations under these circumstances is to take control, as Jacobs did, by becoming pregnant, hopefully by someone powerful enough to protect her. And, she is therefore forced to sacrifice virtue.
The process of her life includes a dramatic portrayal of the conflict she feels between the physical necessities, her own moral code. and her deep belief in family responsibilities. Her answer is to hide in her Grandmother’s house in order to be “safe” and also to be close to her own children. During the extended length of time she is hidden, the young woman experiences a mental breakdown incorporating physical and emotional regression to a childlike state. It may be that Jacobs is comparing her predicament with a type of ‘rebirth’ whereby she has a need to be nurtured into a third stage of her life. More likely, the occurrence of her regression is but a historical component of within the story of her life.
When she is finally discovered she is forced to flee and to begin another life as servant in the North. It is during this period that her argument concerning the hypocrisy of the Northern culture in it’s rejection of the legal bounds of slavery while embracing social norms that were nearly as restrictive and anti-human. In her new position she is able to formulate another family of sorts with the child in her care. Her own children leave and she is also able to experience the different cultural aspects of England and life as a privileged servant as opposed to a slave. In England, where “for the first time in [her] life” she is “treated according to [her] deportment, without reference to [her] complexion” , with Baby Mary in her arms and Mr. Bruce by her side, she suddenly is availed of a new perspective on the role of mother and wife with child and husband, accorded all the legitimacy and respectability, that accompanies freedom, and whiteness. Her family, at the end of the novel, is not with her own children, but with a decent man who makes no sexual demands upon her, eventually a woman (the second Mrs. Bruce) who befriends her, and a child who gives her unconditional love.
As a black woman, she rides in segregated trains and boats, stays in segregated hotels, and describes racist work rules and work places. As a member of this reconstituted family, she was not put into a “Jim Crow Car,…..neither was I invited to ride through the streets on top of trunks in a truck; but every where I found the same manifestations of the cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people”