HIST 1301 CRN11413.20171
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: The Role of Gender
Harriet Jacobs, the narrator of the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, had to change her name for her safety in which she called herself Linda Brent. Harriet’s story illustrates the horrors and brutalities endured by enslaved men, women. She discusses her childhood and she was unaware that she was a slave until her mother died at the age of six. In her earliest years, they were pleasant in terms that she was not harmed yet. Harriet was given to the daughter of Dr. Flint and wife Mrs. Flint. The women were degraded to be as “breeders” which were forced to bear children to add their master’s “stock.” The economics of slavery was seen that the males were valued for their labor and physical strength while the females were valued for their offspring. The purpose for Harriet Jacobs to have the North be accountable and guilty as the South slaveholders for supporting and perpetuating the system of slavery. Women are more known to be the nurturing than males who are more for dominance. This is known to be a psychological view. At birth males are raised to be more of a dominant and must know how to work while the females at birth are raised to nurture and conserved (meaning to not ask for more). Through the eyes of Harriet, there seems to be a common theme of emasculation, hypocrisy, and fear of gender.
In the beginning, she begins with her childhood and how she was a slave until her mother died when she was six. As Harriet was becoming a woman, Dr. Flint began to pursue her in which he haunted and lurked her every step. He was trying to demonstrate his dominance and power over her. He often would try to frighten her and would at times try to force himself on to him. There was no escape from him as she used all her faculties to dissuade him from raping her. Mrs. Flint was of no use and would not help’ yet (is ironic), the mistresses of the slaveholders were often jealous of the young female slaves their husbands lusted for. Harriet had a strategy that would stray off Dr. Flint which was giving herself to a white man named Mr. Sands. Her reasoning was that by bearing another man’s child it would disguise him. She of course developed feelings for Mr. Sands since he always treated her well. Harriet’s plan worked, however, it was limited since Dr. Flint began to be crueler and still tries to force her to tell him who the father is. Harriet refused to tell him. It is now, Harriet illustrates the Dr. Flint’s emasculation in the sense that the owner needs to make sure his “property” has not been touched since it would be impure. He wanted to breed with her so that his “stock” is plentiful, yet deny the right to care for them. In the next few chapters, Harriet explains how slaves were punished and the false hope the North had fed to the slaves and the curse of being a slave woman..
During Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, there was an increase in the persecution of slaves in the town. Luckily, Harriet’s grandmother (who now resides with her and her son) was a very respected figure and was left alone along with her family. There’s a bit of hypocrisy in the book as the Christian whites in the South. The slaves wanted access to reading and writing so they may embrace Christianity, yet were denied. Christianity’s goal is to spread the Word of God so that the people may find the path of righteousness but as it turns out (during this time) there are terms and conditions on what the “color” of one’s skin must be to embraced by God. It was of course not unusual for the master to satisfy his lust with his female slaves and force them to bear their offspring. As Harriet points out that the children from such unions were to be sold to protect the wife’s “honor” and “dignity” otherwise the wife would have to be forced to face the undeniable truth of their husband’s lust. The wives of the slaveholders would often try to impress others and praise their husband about their wealth, the amount of property they owned, and the
“remarkable” parties. They would turn a blind eye as their husbands were satisfying their lust in terms that they are “stressed” or “he’s good to me.” The wives of course never divorced even though they were aware with the situation since women weren’t independent and had to depend on the husband. It was frowned upon for the women to divorce the since they would have been a “bad egg” and women didn’t work due to them being fragile.
When Harriet’s first born child was born, she was not as concerned since her child was a boy, Benjamin. She felt a sense of grief and anger as she curses the institution of slavery for making her wish her own son would die. She explains how difficult it would be if he would be taken from her. However, when it was the birth of her second child, she gave birth to a girl, Ellen, and from that moment she stated, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.” Males were valued greatly for their labor and strength while the females were valued for their offspring. She fears greatly for her daughter due to people similar to Dr. Flint or Dr. Flint himself that he would force themselves on her. Harriet didn’t want her child to be used as a “tool.” Through a psychological view women were maternal in a way that they would take good care of their children as best they could. Men were seen to be more concerned with themselves as Harriet mentions her Uncle Benjamin who refused to stand for the cruel treatment he receives and later runs away to the North. It appears that he left the only family he did have to go on and save his own life by escaping and not even thinking twice about the consequences his remaining family might get. Although, men are dominant while the women to be nurturers a man named Mr. Sands purchased Benjamin and Ellen and granted them freedom which made Harriet’s reaction to be utter happiness as she stated, “The darkest cloud that hung over my life had rolled away. Whatever slavery might do to me, it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were safe.”
As the Harriet Jacob story ends, she hears of her freedom she feels a heavy burden is off her shoulders. She ends it by looking back on her grandmother and uncle who were thankfully able to see her free. It is by comparing Harriet’s Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl to another well-known narrator Frederick Douglass. In Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative, he displays no emotional attachment to his mother and no intention in investing time to the community. For instance, in his book, he describes how he watched his aunt be beaten and how he does nothing to try to help her only due his fear of his master’s wrath that will turn on him. It was to my surprise that Douglass story went on to being known for his book and as a civil rights leader while Harriet’s became oblivion. Although both narrators found their bondage to freedom, Harriet’s cause is personal since she wanted to save her children as for Douglass’ is political. Harriet Jacob was determined to make an impact on slavery on women that she had decided to document her horrifying experiences as an enslaved African woman.
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