Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself” by Harriet Jacobs.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself”
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs seems too horrific to be true. One feels that it is a fictional account rather than an autobiography. Jacobs’s life was one of unmentionable cruelty and sorrow. It is also one of great courage and sacrifice. Written under the pen name Linda Brent, the book was first published in 1861. Jacobs tells of her years as a house slave before the Civil War, of the sexual exploitation she endured and the incredible sacrifices she made to gain her freedom and that of her children. That was her only dream, to be free with her children. It is interesting to note the class differences of slavery, the field slave verses the house slave. Growing up in the master’s home, Jacobs didn’t know she was a slave, saying, “I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away”(Jacobs pg). Jacob’s story is one of compassion and human frailty, of unconditional love and human indignity.
Jacobs wasn’t after fame or fortune when she wrote her story ‘by herself.’ She was seeking to teach awareness, to let others whose lives were so sheltered and safe that there was completely different world existed for those who were sold and traded like live stock. She wanted to tell the truth about slave women and their children, and the heartbreaking journey each was destined to endure as long as slavery existed. Jacobs writes in her preface:
“â€¦..I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage,
suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations”
Jacobs was truly haunted by those she left behind. She did not merely escape and live her life anew, distant from her past. She never stopped remembering the women who were still living in bondage, still living her past. Her compassion and her memory never failed.
Jacobs’s description of New Years Day was heart wrenching. Mothers and children separated amid pleas for mercy. It was indeed a day of sorrow as slave mothers. Jacobs describes them, “watching the children who may al be torn from her the next morningâ€¦she wished that she and they might die before the day dawn” (Jacobs pg). The desperation and helplessness these women felt, “mother clinging to her child, when they fastened the iron upon his wrists, could you have heard her heart-rending groansâ€¦pleading for mercy” (Jacobs pg). Their pleas were in vain, for slaves were property and therefore undeserving of compassion. In fact, masters were known to show more compassion for a dying animal than for a dying slave. A mother’s plea for her child truly fell on deaf ears. Families separated through sale and trade meant no more than auctioning cattle, it was a business transaction. Jacobs’s vivid descriptions of families watching loved ones forced into trade touch the heart as perhaps no other slave tale.
Many are familiar with the physical indignities that slave endured, such as being sold and traded, however, Jacobs brought awareness of the ‘name’ indignity that so many mothers and children lived daily. Being a slave mother tortured her. She was not allowed to give her children what she knew they were entitled, such as a legal name. Jacobs writes, “Always it gave me a pang that my children had not lawful claim to a nameâ€¦their father offered but I dared not while my master livedâ€¦” (Jacobs pg). Although, her children’s father was a free man, Jacobs was not and so her children would remain slaves for children must “follow the condition of the mother” (Jacobs pg).
Jacobs longed to see her children free, however, it was not a matter of money, for she knew that her master, in particular, would never allow her to buy her freedom or her children’s freedom as some masters did. She knew her only way to freedom would be to flee.
It is difficult to think that anyone could read Jacobs’s description of slave owners and not feel utter shame that humans could treat humans in such manner. Her description leaves one shaking their head in indignant horror. Of the men, Jacobs say, “These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (Jacobs pg). As bad as it was for the men, it was worse for the women. They were routinely raped by their white masters, and often gave birth to half white children, children who would never know who the identity of their father, as Jacobs writes, “what tangled skeins are the genealogies of slavery” (Jacobs pg). Aside from the rapes and the unwarranted children, slave women were forced to endure the wrath of their mistresses. Jealousy and helplessness of her husband’s actions often caused the mistress to aim hatred and revenge toward the female slave. It gnawed at the senses to read her feelings about the birth of her second child, “When they told me my new-born babe a girl, my heart was heavier than it have ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for womenâ€¦.they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (Jacobs pg). The sexual persecutions that slave women live through daily, throughout their lives, is had to phantom. The will of the master as all- powerful is difficult to comprehend. The sexual exploitations of women in harems are easier to accept than what Jacobs lived. Certainly both are want of freedom, however, one can’t help but believe that the harem women, although property in a sense, are better protected and better cared for than Jacobs.
Jacobs’s dream of freedom for herself and her children is all that kept her alive, it was her only purpose for living. Every fiber of her being ached for freedom until at times she felt they would be better off dead. When her master slapped her son and sent him flying across the room, she laments, “I picked up my insensible childâ€¦and when the brown eyes at last opened, I don’t know whether I was very happy” (Jacobs pg). What despair one must be living to feel sorrow at the awareness that one’s child is alive. What courage it must take to awake each morning. Jacobs’s real test of courage was only beginning at this point in her narrative. What follows is the account of her escape and hiding. Jacobs claims to have spent seven years hiding in her grandmother’s attic, and un-insulated crawlspace with little air and light. She suffered intolerable heat and cold waiting for her chance to escape to freedom. Not even her children knew she was there. Jacobs describes how her only reason for living was to catch glimpses of them through the cracks of the attic. Again, the love of her children and her determination for freedom was her strength, like a mantra or prayer that allows one’s spirit and soul to keep lit the spark of human life when the physical is left un-nourished.
Jacobs’s story is one of great heroism, for through all trials and sufferings that heroes must endure, Jacobs’s was compounded by the mother instincts she was forced to deny. The frailty of humanity shines through her work and gives it substance and truth. As Wayne Lionel Aponte of the “Nation,” writes, “This may be the most important story ever written by a slave woman, capturing as it does the gross indignities as well as the subtle social arrangements of the time” (Aponte pg). For Jacobs, a slave mother’s existence is worse than hell itself. It goes against the grain of God, totally and completely incongruous to nature and everything that was real and living. As Nell Noddings writes in her review of Elizabeth Spelman’s “Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering” which appeared in a 1998 issue of “Hypatia,” “As Jacobs knew, this desire often serves to sustain the need for its own enactment; that is, compassion that brings credit to the compassionate may, paradoxically, support the very conditions that cause suffering. This concern is very close to the one I identified when I insisted on a distinction between ‘caring for’ and ‘caring about'” (Noddings 162). Jacobs’s narrative is certainly one of the most touching tales that grabs the heartstrings and won’t let go. In reviewing Spelman, Noddings says, “Jacobs, Spelman tells us, ‘was acutely attuned to the political and psychological risk sometimes entailed in becoming the object of compassion'” (Noddings 62). In an article for “The Philadelphia Tribune,” Leonard Kirby praises the restoration an republication as a valuable text to the “canon of both African-American and American Women writers” (Krivy pg). Now that Harriet Jacobs’s life story has been rediscovered after decades of obscurity, it is certain to continue to gain status and respect through decades to come.
Aponte, Lionel Wayne. “Praise for the first edition.”
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/reviews/YELINR_R.html. (accessed 11-14-2002)
Jacobs, Harriet (Linda Brent). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself.
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/JACOBS/hjhome.htm. December 18, 1997.
Krivy, Leonard. “Jacobs’ slave narrative a genuine classic: Professor confirms.”
The Philadelphia Tribune. March 07, 1995; pp PG.
Noddings, Nel. “Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering.” Vol. 13,
Hypatia. Volume 13. March 22, 1998; pp 162.
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