Harriet Jacobs’ Incidences in the Life of a Slave girl is one of the most inspiring stories of courage and determination against the bondage of slavery and racial discrimination that America witnessed in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Mackethan 17). Born in 1813 to a slave mother, she and her brother inherited the slave status, as it was the norm during that period. She spent happy six years of childhood unaware of the rope that hung around her neck as a result of slavery until her mother’s death when her mother’s mistress, Margaret Horniblow, claimed him and her brother. Though Horniblow treated her well and taught her how to read, write, and sew, this did not last long as at the age of twelve, the cruelty of slavery was manifested again when her ownership reverted to Horniblow’s niece after Margaret’s death. The girl was only five, and, therefore, her father, Dr. James Norcom, whom Jacobs in the novel refers to as Dr. Flint, took her over. It is then that Jacobs faced the real cruelty of slavery in the hands of Dr. Flint, which made her take one drastic action after another throughout her life to escape her master’s aggressiveness, violence, and sexual harassment (Logan 46).
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During the time Jacobs was writing her story, around 1850s, slavery was a volatile issue in the United States (Midgley 343). There were deep divisions in the American society on whether slavery should be introduced in new states such as Nebraska, Kansas, and California, while in the southern states, it was the law. California was declared a free state where freed slaves could live their lives without being questioned as the compromise of 1850 was enacted. This compromise, however, was short lived as the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act sought to recapture runaway slaves and bring them back to their masters, of course with drastic consequences. These laws affected Jacobs and her children’s lives as she ran away from her master. In 1854, bloody conflicts between the abolitionists and pro-slavery groups were witnessed in the new states. This fueled the abolition struggle as groups such as the Underground Railroad joined in and became more active. Propaganda was a major weapon of war for abolitionists, and it was slave narratives such as Jacobs’ that dominated the African American literature. These were used to appeal to the emotions and conscience of the white American society and to counter the claims of pro-slavery people that slaves were well treated and happy with their lives. Many of them, some true others fictional, contained descriptions of violence and deprivation meted out to slaves. However, Jacobs’s narrative is unique in that it is not only a true account of the cruelty of slavery, but it also gives a perspective on the suffering and struggle of women slaves, who were mainly hushed. It is this narrative that focuses on the conquest based on race and shows a certain category of captivity, one in which men impose on women irrespective of their race in the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century. Jacobs has to fight not only slavery but also this captivity, and in her struggle, she shows how other women were viewing it (Yellin 33).
The Cult of Domesticity
A form of slavery and feminism is depicted by the idea of womanhood that was propagated during this time in the main American society not only by men but also by women themselves. A true woman was thought of as having the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness to her husband, her neighbors, and society, as Jacobs says (Jacobs 331). These were the qualities on which women were judged by, and it is what was referred to as the cult of domesticity (Jacobs, McKay and Foster 32). All Jacobs’ women characters that she meets and who are instrumental in her life and escape consider themselves as true women or are trying to live by these standards. It is not by coincidence that they do not achieve these standards; what Jacobs is trying to show is that it is not possible to live by such restrictive norms as it is comparable to being a slave not only to men but also to themselves. This is depicted by Jacobs’ grandmother, Aunt Martha, who is also such a woman. She is religious, humble, domestic and patient, though to the extreme. Although she had managed to buy her freedom, most of her children and grandchildren are subjected to slavery and some run away to the North; and she watches as her daughter, Aunt Nancy, is killed slowly by slavery. It is Aunt Martha, her domestic ways, and her home that Jacobs really loves and respects and wants to have throughout the story. Aunt Martha works hard to support herself and her family by selling baked goods to her neighbors. She is also deeply religious and would not indulge in a love affair - which one can assume as a sign of purity. She urges Jacobs to be submissive to her master, although this master is harassing her sexually, and accept her fate as a slave. Her lack of submissiveness, however, is shown when Jacobs relates a story where her grandmother threatened a white man who had come to woo her daughter with a loaded gun. Such a case of white men propositioning black women slaves was common and unofficially accepted. Aunt's mother, therefore, does not behave like a true woman according to the society’s standards - an unforgivable sin which makes Jacobs appreciate and respect her. It is here that Jacobs wants to show that if slave women live by the standards of the society and especially of white middle-class, they will be paid with greater suffering (Jacobs 337).
After her escape from her master, Jacobs is helped by a slave holding white woman, who sought to remain anonymous (Jacobs 338). This woman is described by Jacobs as a true woman in every respect, or she wants the reader to think so, except that she helped Jacobs and other slaves escaping from their masters in the South. The woman is described as pious, domestic, and one can assume that she is also pure, but like Aunt Martha, she does not submit to the demands that escaping slaves should be recaptured and taken back to their masters or even the idea of slavery. She keeps quiet about the whereabouts of Jacobs when she is pursued by her master. She slimly escapes from being found by Dr. Flint twice, but the woman does not tell Flint where Jacobs is as it would have been expected of her. It was not also in her place as a white society woman to get involved in conflicts between a master and his slave, nor take a side of another woman over a man, but she chooses to do so. Mackethan says that women were confined to the privacy of their homes and domestic lives, as it was depicted by the nineteenth century literature, such as magazines and religious literature (47). This made the woman a hostage confined in her home. Her domain was there with her duties clearly stipulated as that of managing the household to the best of her ability, bringing comfort to her husband and children, and issues of justice and the politics generated by slavery were not in her domain.
The women trying to fit into the ideals of true womanhood are also depicted by Mrs Bruce, where Jacobs was working as the nursemaid to their newborn daughter. After the death of Dr. Flint, the ownership of Jacobs is willed on his daughter Emily, who together with her husband Mr. Dodge tries to recapture Jacobs in New York. Mrs. Bruce hides her child and Jacobs in a friend’s house and buys her for $300 from Emily and her husband. To the society, Mrs. Bruce is a true woman of the society, but she aids a slave in escaping from her master. Mrs. Bruce did not purchase Jacobs to enslave her, but she wanted to buy her freedom. Although Jacobs resisted this, she says at the end of the book that she is very grateful to her for her kindness and that she was still working for her while she wrote her articles and the book and continued to participate in other activism activities. This woman is in the league of Aunt Martha and the white woman: they are trying to live as a true woman but, this is too restrictive for what they believed in.
A twist of the quest for the ideal of true womanhood is depicted by Dr. Flint’s wife, Mrs. Flint. Jacobs introduces Mrs. Flint in an unflattering way, where she talks about her as an example of many Southern women who are totally lacking in energy or are assumed to lazy (Jacobs, McKay and Foster 33). She is said to be lacking in strength to govern her own household affairs, but she has the courage to sit in an easy chair totally at peace as a woman is beaten until she is bleeding from the whippings she gets. This woman is also religious in that she is a member of the church and partakes in the communion, but this is unable to change her mentality, and the reader may conclude her evilness (Jacobs 347). Though this woman behaves appropriately when her husband is around, her evilness is shown when she gets rid of Jacobs due to her jealously. This is hardly the characteristic of a pure woman who attends church and partakes in the communion. She is also lacking in her domesticity and piety as she is unable to manage her household and instead would rather pass the time watching a woman being whipped or conspiring against her rivals.
One also sees a new dimension of Mrs. Flint when she learns that her husband is after Jacobs for a sexual liaison. Jacobs went to see her with a view of getting help to evade Dr. Flint’s attention. After Jacobs had told her about what has been happening to her, instead of seeking a solution to it, she depicts herself as a martyr, as Jacobs says (Jacobs 349). She does not even sympathize with the poor girl and does not see the shame and misery her husband’s actions has put on the slave girl. The solution Mrs. Flint comes up with is to put Jacobs in her room so as to keep distance between her and her husband. Jon Hauss provides an insight into the ideals of true womanhood at this point when he says that Mrs. Flint is acting like her husband or taking a man’s role in how she is treating the slave. What this means is that she is not being submissive. The actions of Mrs. Flint are truly similar to her husband’s since she is not keeping Jacobs there to help her but so as to punish and confine her. In the night, she whispers in Jacobs’ ear the way her husband would have done (Logan 34). She goes against what a woman would do in such a situation. A woman was not expected to oppress, but to treat another woman better. She took the role of the oppressor instead of that of the oppressed. Being an example of many Southern women, it goes to show just how lacking in the ideal of true womanhood was common in as much as the society wanted to believe it should exist (Midgley 346).
Throughout her life, as described in the narrative, Jacobs does not allow identities to be imposed on her by whites and males in particular that would brand her inferior (Logan 25). She realizes the impossibility of a slave to achieve this ideal of a true woman and defines her own idea of femininity. In her identity, she does not acknowledge submissiveness but rather demands respect as a woman from her male master and other whites. Slaves were thought of as property, and female slaves were considered as a property not only to utilize economically but also to violate sexually whenever the need arises, and they had no right to protest. In her description of how Dr. Flint treated her, Jacobs states that he told her that she was a property made for his use and should obey him in everything. As such, she was supposed to surrender to him. At this point, she says that, at that time, her small arm felt so strong as it has never felt before (Jacobs 459). Instead of submitting to her master’s command and let her master violate her, Jacobs took a desperate turn and forge a relationship with a single white man in the neighborhood, Mr. Sands, to wade Dr. Flint's plan of having her, thus choosing to give herself rather being forced to do so. She says that she felt it was less degrading to give herself rather than submit to compulsion. She says she felt something close to freedom while being in an affair where her lover did not own her or had control over her (Jacobs 501).
Jacobs’ quest to demand respect rather than give in to submissiveness from her master is what compelled her to do what she did. She was determined not to give in to her master’s idea of her being his property. Though her affair with Mr. Sands eventually bore children, which she hoped would discourage Dr. Flint from chasing after her, this did not happen. It actually enraged him more, as Jacobs says, he saw this as a loss of a legal right he had over her purity. He reminded her at every opportunity that he owned her and her children whom he can sell if he wished so. This, however, did not deter her as she escaped with her children to another plantation, where she worked very hard to provide for her children, but was very happy that she was free of the bondage of sexual slavery (Mackethan 36).
Power is not something that is found in the ideals of a true womanhood or femininity in the nineteenth century patriarchal American society, let alone of a slave (Hersh 31). A slave was not allowed to have power, but Jacobs’ chose to define her own femininity by having power over her master and also her lover. When Jacobs attains fifteen years, her master realizes she is becoming a woman; he seduces and tries to compel her to make what he wishes. She fights to gain her authority over her body and life by choosing to have an affair with Mr. Sands. This is not a decision she is very proud of, but one she was forced to take. One of the reasons why she wanted an affair with Mr. Sands was to try to compel her master to sell her to him as, in her view, it would have been easier to obtain her freedom from Mr. Sands. She wanted to have a say in her life and also over her body. It is this relationship that allows her to have a say in her children’s lives. When she is hiding in the garret, she spies on Mr. Sands and finally convinces him to free her children whom he owned. Jacobs also shows courage and power when she chooses the kind of constraints she has in her life, instead of giving this power to her master, or in case of white women, to their husbands and society. She lives in her grandmother’s garret for seven years as she hides from Dr. Flint, who had repeatedly urged and threatened her in order to force her go back to his house. This would have provided her with some form of comfort, but Jacobs understood the constraints of slavery, harassment from Mrs. Flint, and sexual violation that this would bring. This choice, however, provides her with a form of power and freedom from her master (Jacobs, McKay and Foster 28).
Jacobs wields power over her master. She writes him a letter while she is hiding in the garret. Her letter are posted from the north, which indicates to Dr. Flint that she has run away to the north, and, therefore, he makes trips to the north in her pursuit without success. She controls his actions for seven years - something that a slave or woman would not have had the power to do (Jacobs, McKay and Foster 37).
The role of women in the nineteenth century American society was that of being tokens, gifts, commodities or adornments, as Hersh says (32). Jacobs is clearly told by her master that she is his property to fulfill his will, command, and whims (Jacobs 459). Jacobs fights this from the time she was fifteen, when Dr. Flint starts to seduce her. She fights this by taking drastic actions such as having an affair with Mr. Sands and bearing his children, escaping to another plantation, and hiding in the garret for seven years. In her hiding in the north, Emily Flint and her husband are determined to recapture her, but when Mrs. Bruce offers to buy her freedom, she refuses since she does not want to be bought like some commodity again. Here, Jacobs defies the society’s rigid position of a woman. She refuses to be treated as a property or an object by the possessor who could do what he/she wanted with it. This is a position that women had been handed down for centuries, and they accepted it. Jacobs does what she has to do for the sake of her children and her peace of mind and freedom - something that has come to define womanhood in the twentieth and twenty first century (Yellin 24).
A twist in how Jacobs sees womanhood to a quest to have power, freedom, and control of their lives is provided by a governess in the Rochester household, Jane. Jane falls in love with the mysterious Mr. Rochester, her employer, only to discover that he is married and that his wife, who is insane, is hidden away in the attic of this estate. Jane is forced to leave, but eventually she is reunited with Mr. Rochester after his wife’s death. Jane has had a difficult childhood as an orphan and spent several years in a charity school. He sees Mr. Rochester as her savior as she proudly declares “I married him” (Jacobs 462). From the description of Jacobs and the history of the American society in the nineteenth century, seeking a rich and eligible bachelor to marry for a woman was not only the expected thing but was also a highly desired thing in order to gain status, a comfortable life, and protection (Midgley 353). For women slaves, this was not an option available to them so as to escape slavery and its misery; they had to fight or submit to it. For Jacobs, the option was fighting. This is shown by the many years she spent hiding in a garret, where she could only lie down as the space was not even enough to sit. While there, she had to continue fighting and remain sane, and not became a lunatic in the attic as Mr. Rochester’s wife. It is while in that condition that she exercised her power and control as she wrote letters to deceive her master and tried to secure her children’s future.
Critics of this narrative have, however, poured cold water on Jacob’s quest to attain freedom and ascertain her ideal of femininity (Jacobs, McKay and Foster 54). This is because to a modern reader, this narrative depicts Jacobs as a tragic heroine of British romance novels rather than an enslaved black woman and a woman fighting for her survival and that of her children in a society that is very close minded and unjust (Yellin 38). In this vein, Dr. Flint is seen as a persistent suitor or lover who is determined to win the hand or even the heart of the woman he loves, instead of a slave owner who is determined to get back his property. It is true that Dr. Flint is persistent in getting back Jacobs but not as a lover. He also does not choose to force Jacobs into having an affair with him, but uses other equally cruel means by seducing her with threats and trickery. It is due to her rebelliousness that his rage turns to obsession to break her will. Throughout all this, he never shows any regard for her rights or feelings. The idea of feminism, as fought by Jacobs, is further tainted by her use of sexuality to escape her fate when she gives herself to Mr. Sands and continues to have two children with him, with the idea of having a bargaining with Dr. Flint. Though she sees this decision as the lesser of two evils, it does not help as the readers may see this as a contributing factor to her bondage rather than redemption.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the many literatures used to propagate the cruelty of the slavery during the nineteenth century to try to appeal to the emotions and conscience of the white society. Though it described the brutality of slavery and the courage and determination to change this, it is unique in the way it brings into perspective the suffering and struggle of women against slavery imposed by men regardless of their color in the patriarchal American society. The humiliations and sufferings of women slaves caused by their masters are given in this true account of one woman’s life. Jacobs in this narrative is crying for freedom and is also seeking the attention of women to their situation and the need to fight the unequal treatment they accept as a norm. She is trying to show women that the ideals set by men and society, which they unquestioningly accept, are impossible. The ideal of true womanhood, such as submissiveness, piety, purity, and domesticity, are impossible to live with when there is so much injustice in the society, and when women are treated as property for their men’s use, as commodities to buy or sell or tokens. Jacobs has addressed both the oppression over women by men and the one meted out to black by whites. The feminism message carried in this narrative was and continues to be very powerful.