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Harriet Jacobs Free Essay

Harriet Jacobs c. 1813-1897

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Linda Brent) American autobiographer.

Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), stands out from the male-dominated slave narrative genre in its unique point of view and especially in its focus on the sexual exploitation of the female slave. Soon after the publication of Incidents, which Jacobs penned under the pseudonym Linda Brent, questions arose regarding the text's authenticity. Many believed the book to have been written by its white abolitionist editor, Lydia Maria Child. Doubts about the narrative's veracity and its true author persisted into the twentieth century, and Incidents consequently was neglected by historians and critics alike. In 1981, however, Jean Fagan Yellin discovered Jacobs's correspondence with Child, and with another abolitionist friend, Amy Post. The letters, along with the rest of Yellin's research, assured the authenticity of Jacobs's narrative; and since then Incidents has received its due critical attention. Modern criticism has focused largely on Jacobs's exploitation of the sentimental domestic genre and on the differences between Jacobs's work and slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845).

Biographical Information

Jacobs was born a slave in North Carolina. Her parents were both slaves, but her grandmother had been emancipated and owned her own home, earning a living as a baker. When Jacobs was six years old, her mother died, and she was sent to the home of her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Horniblow taught the young Jacobs to read, spell, and sew; she died when Jacobs was eleven or twelve and willed Jacobs to Mary Matilda Norcom, Horniblow's threeyear-old niece. While living in the Norcom household, Jacobs suffered the sexual harassment of Dr. James Norcom, Mary's father and a prominent physician. Dr. Norcom threatened Jacobs with concubinage when she was sixteen years old. Rather than submit to the doctor, Jacobs became the mistress of a white slave-holding neighbor of the Norcoms and soon announced that she was pregnant. She bore two children, both fathered by this white neighbor. At the age of twenty-one, Jacobs ran away, believing that Norcom would sell the children in her absence. In her narrative, Jacobs, as Linda Brent, wrote that at this time she hid for seven years in an attic crawlspace in her grandmother's home, where her children lived unaware of their mother's presence. The children were purchased by their father shortly after Jacobs went into hiding; they were allowed to continue living with their grandmother. Jacobs finally succeeding in fleeing North in 1842. There she reunited with her children and tried to establish a home for her family. In 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (which stated that anyone caught aiding a fugitive slave was subject to punishment) threatened her safety and Jacobs once again went into hiding. In 1852 her employer, Mrs. Nathaniel Parker Willis, purchased Jacobs for three hundred dollars in order to free her. Soon after, Jacobs was urged by Amy Post to write her life's story, and spent five years doing just that. After three years of trying to get her book published, Jacobs finally succeeded in 1861. Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jacobs and her daughter continued to fight for the rights of African Americans. Jacobs died in 1897.

Major Works

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl details the horrific experiences endured by Jacobs. In the preface to the book, Jacobs, as Linda Brent, states that her "adventures may seem incredible," but assures readers that her "descriptions fall short of the facts." Brent describes her life as a slave from her early years, when she did not even know she was a slave, to the violence and exploitation she endured as a teenager at the hands of her master, and finally to her repugnance at the thought of her well-meaning employer purchasing her in order to free her. Although Jacobs wrote Incidents in the style of the sentimental novel, she seems to argue against the conception of womanhood that the sentimental novel conventionally upheld. While appealing to a Northern, white, female audience at a time when "true womanhood" meant chastity and virtue, Jacobs urges that slavery makes it impossible for a black woman to live a virtuous, chaste life. As she upholds some of the conventions of the sentimental genre by emphasizing the primacy and significance of motherhood and domesticity, Jacobs also demonstrates how the institution of slavery threatens and destroys white and black women alike. In these respects, Incidents differs markedly from typical, male slave narratives, which emphasize the ways in which slavery destroys masculinity. Yet a common factor among male slave narratives and Jacobs's Incidents is the sense of triumph the writer describes as he or she reclaims a sense of self.

Critical Reception

Incidents received little critical attention until Yellin's research revealed the authenticity of the narrative. This research established Jacobs as the sole author of Incidents and clarified Child's limited role as editor. Since then, critical studies usually discuss the way in which Incidents uses or exploits the conventions of one of two genres: domestic literature or slave narrative. Minrose C. Gwin argues that Jacobs was influenced by sentimental literature in that Jacobs felt compelled to apologize for and explain her reasons for her sexual experiences. Gwin goes on to state that whereas sentimental literature advanced ideals such as virtue and sensibility, Jacobs shows that such ideals were incompatible with the slave woman's experience. While Thomas Doherty identifies the shortcomings of Incidents as a work of sentimental literature, he argues that the book moves "women's literature" into the realm of politics. Similarly, Jean Fagan Yellin suggests that Incidents is designed to prompt women to political action. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese contends that in writing to an audience of free, Northern women, Jacobs uses the style of sentimental domestic fiction, but the tone and content of the book differ considerably from other works of domestic fiction. While Fox-Genovese states that Incidents depicts slavery as a violation of womanhood, Hazel V. Carby argues that Jacobs appropriates the conventions of the sentimental genre in order to examine the standards of female behavior and the relevance of such standards to the experience of black women in particular. Similarly, Valerie Smith demonstrates that although Jacobs uses the rhetoric of sentimental fiction, the author transcends the constraints of the genre in order to express the "complexity of her experience as a black woman." Mary Helen Washington, on the other hand, views Incidents more as a slave narrative than a sentimental novel. Washington argues that as a slave narrative, Incidents surpasses gender boundaries; Washington emphasizes the significance of the reclamation of the self in Incidents and in other slave narratives. Sarah Way Sherman also examines Incidents as a slave narrative, discussing the ways that the book differs from Douglass's Narrative. Sherman specifically emphasizes the differences between Douglass's and Jacobs's upbringing as well as the obvious difference in gender. Furthermore, Sherman notes that the nineteenth-century's conception of domesticity is challenged by Jacobs in Incidents. Like Sherman, Carolyn Sorisio examines Incidents in terms of both the slave narrative and the sentimental domestic genre and concludes that Jacobs's story—which, Sorisio contends, focuses most heavily on the issue of identity and the conception of self—cannot fit into either of the genres Jacobs has used to tell it.

  • 1

    What does Incidents suggest about Christianity?

    Like Frederick Douglass, Harriet is quick to distinguish the "true" Christianity as practiced by slaves, some northerners, and the English from the hypocritical Christianity as practiced by southern whites. Southern whites used religion to justify the system of slavery; ministers quoted passages from the Bible exhorting slaves to obey their masters. Harriet writes that she is surprised to hear that Dr. Flint joined the Episcopal Church, and notes that his treatment of her worsened after he became a member. He was the ultimate hypocrite, ignoring every biblical command of humility, love, compassion, mercy, and patience. He and other southern whites believed that their tithes and their taking of communion meant that they were good Christians, but felt no compunction about their violence, sexual depravity, prevarications, pride, and rage. Christianity in its purest form was found in the meek Uncle Fred whom Harriet taught to read; the minister forced to leave his post at the local Edenton church after teaching that slaves were human beings; and among the English.

  • 2

    How does the North embody the negative traits of racism?

    While the South is unequivocally the primary bearer of the blame for the system of slavery, the North was not free from its own deleterious racism and complicity in the enslavement of millions. Northerners were hypocritical, marrying their daughters to southern planters and only looking superficially at the scenes of plantation life without taking the time to discern the reality. Northern ministers coming to the South fell into a pattern of sermons that emphasized slaves' fidelity to their masters. In the free states, northerners enacted segregation laws to keep blacks and whites apart in public accommodations. Harriet writes of her shock at having to sit in a different carriage and her disgust at being treated differently than nurses of other races in upstate New York. She and other slaves in the north were not free from whites seeking to ferret out runaways and return them to the south (e.g. Mr. Thorne exposes Harriet's presence in New York), especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. They also had difficulty gaining employment in the wake of pervasive racism; Harriet's young son Benny leaves his trade because he cannot handle his fellow employees' treatment of him. Northerners may not have institutionalized slavery, but they benefited economically from it, and often internalized the same racist sentiments.

  • 3

    What picture does Harriet paint of slave life?

    Harriet's narrative, like other slave narratives, seeks to unveil the truth about life for slaves in the antebellum South. She depicts the cruel punishments, deprivation of food and appropriate clothing, and the harsh labor. She focuses a great deal on the prohibition of strong family ties by the selling off of family members or the forced dissolution of marriages, detailing the grief felt by mothers who saw their children sent away and the despair felt by Harriet when she realized she could not marry whom she pleased. Harriet also focuses on the particular plight of female slaves, who were subject to being raped and had to bear their masters' children. Slaves were kept intellectually inferior by being denied the ability to read and write, and were not allowed to engage in "true" Christianity. They were fed a constant stream of lies and false promises. However, they were able to find some succor and meaning in the familial and communal ties that did exist for them, as well as uniting together western and African religion, traditions, and rituals to create meaningful cultural expressions that infused both their daily lives and holidays with value.

  • 4

    How does Harriet feel about white southerners and northerners?

    Harriet's experiences with white southerners is decidedly mixed. She writes fondly of her first white mistress, but that woman, of whom it was assumed would free Harriet, gave her to the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Flint. The Flint family, of course, was the embodiment of everything repulsive and immoral about southern whites. Harriet discusses other local whites who treated their slaves poorly, and writes of the "low whites" that gleefully formed marauding bands in the wake of the Nat Turner Rebellion to grasp at any power they could get. However, there were a handful of southern whites that were kind and solicitous and offered Harriet aid in some way or another (i.e., the woman who lets Harriet hide in her home). Albeit to a lesser degree, she finds a similar situation in the North, where Harriet is both shocked at the racism exhibited by some whites and comforted by the mercy and love she receives from others. She writes of the first Mrs. Bruce that the woman was the first white person with whom she could let her guard down and her heart thaw. It was a big deal for her to be able to trust someone with a white complexion, as they seemed to usually betray her. Of course, Harriet is not extremely harsh regarding white northerners, as they made up the bulk of her reading public.

  • 5

    What role does marriage play in the text?

    Jacobs wrote her narrative in the style of the sentimental novel during the height of the Victorian era. Marriage and the domestic sphere were glorified, with the middle-class family being touted as a refuge of safety and mutual love and respect set apart from the turmoil and crassness of the industrial world outside its walls. Harriet makes it clear that she espouses this viewpoint; she laments the fact that she cannot marry the young free black carpenter and have children with him within the bonds of marriage. It is depressing to her that her children, born out of wedlock to a man she esteems but is not married to, cannot have the legitimate last name of their father. She constantly touts her life growing up in a household consisting of a married mother and father and a loving extended family as the ideal to which she aspires. This, of course, is denied to her by her position as a slave. At the end of the text she writes that her story does not end in marriage, as these tales often do, but with freedom. Harriet does not marry and constantly strives to have a home of her own. However, it is important to see that marriage in Incidents is not always the harmonious and loving state that it should be; southern white men like Dr. Flint pursue sex with their slaves while their wives steep in jealously and bitterness. Fathers and sons are suspicious of each other. Daughters soon see their romantic fantasies dissolve amid the realities of the patriarchal southern society. The marriages of slaves, when they are permitted, seem to be much better models than those of whites.

  • 6

    How does Jacobs appeal to her white audience?

    Harriet Jacobs is writing primarily for an audience of white northern women, hoping to galvanize them into abolitionist action. She employs several different strategies. The first is the use of Lydia Maria Child, her editor, who wrote an introduction to the work to vouch for its legitimacy and veracity. She chose the popular style of a sentimental novel for her narrative, pitting her younger self against the cruel and lascivious Dr. Flint. She tugged at the heartstrings of her readers by showcasing her intense love for her children and her willingness to do anything to secure their safety and freedom. She writes frankly of the horrors of slavery, particularly those suffered by women, in her hopes of stimulating her readers' sympathy. She also does not shy away from pricking their consciences, albeit subtly, through her criticism of northern racism and her incredulity that northern men are women are silent: "In view of these things, why are you silent, ye free men and women of the north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right?" (33) All of these strategies were intended to adhere to the fine line between garnering sympathy of readers and making them feel remiss for their action/inaction.

  • 7

    What role does the black community play in the text?

    Unlike some slave narratives written by men, Harriet Jacobs is not a lone, heroic figure who accomplishes everything on her own. She is aided and supported by the entire black community and owes her success to them. Firstly, she was raised by two loving parents; her father instilled in her a sense of self-worth and autonomy. Her grandmother is perhaps the single most important person in life: she protects Harriet from the advances of Dr. Flint; offers her love, mercy, and compassion; provides for her material comfort and gives her a place to hide; cares for her children; and stands as a model of virtue and fortitude whom Harriet seeks to emulate. Harriet is aided in her escapes by her uncle, her friend Peter, and her friend Betty. An elderly slave woman, Aggie, offers counsel, love, and perspective. Harriet also receives love and support from her dear Aunt Nancy, and is inspired and protected by her brother William. In the north, Harriet continues to benefit from the society of her fellow blacks and demonstrates her own capacity for love and support when it comes to her own children and her brother. Blacks in the north also had to band together to keep each other safe from whites trying to capture them in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act. It is clear that the black community's emphasis on nurture and assistance was a way to stave off the worst of slavery. Harriet would not have been able to accomplish what she did without it.

  • 8

    What are the myths about slaves that Jacobs seeks to dispel?

    As southerners were extremely clever in their rhetorical justification of slavery and the natural inferiority and inhumanity of blacks, to the point that many northerners easily bought into the peculiar institution, Jacobs is keen on dispelling some of those myths. She explains that blacks are indeed inferior intellectually, but it is because they are rendered that way by slavery itself. They are denied the ability to read, write, communicate, and express their ideas. They are cowed into submission by the lash and by the tongue. Also, slave women are not licentious; their perceived lack of virtue - as glimpsed in the lack of marriage and children born out of wedlock - is not their fault. They are pursued and victimized by slaveholders and are not allowed to cultivate virtue or modesty. Jacobs also denies the validity of the assumption that because slaves sing, dance, and engage in holidays like Christmas and rituals like funerals that they are happy and content. These expressions and events are much more complicated; slaves' happiness and pleasure are mingled with sorrow, rage, and longing.

  • 9

    Why does Jacobs think white and black women ought to be judged by different moral standards?

    Jacobs writes, "the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others" (62). She says this after telling the reader about her decision to sleep with Mr. Sands in order to stave off the attentions of Dr. Flint. While she is ashamed of her actions and embarrassed to have to admit to them, she is quick to explain that slave women do not have the choices available to white women and are often pushed into situations that they cannot extricate themselves from. It is not fair to be critical of slave women who engage in premarital relations and have children out of wedlock, for in many of those cases the woman was raped. Others, like Harriet, made the choice to give their body away freely to a man who did not take them by force. Slave women were rarely allowed to marry the man that they preferred and sometimes simply lived with him and bore his children in a marriage-like state without the protection afforded to them or their children by a legal union. White women did not have to deal with any of these agonizing situations and dilemmas and therefore were not qualified to pass judgment on slave women for their perceived lack of adherence to moral standards.

  • 10

    What are Incidents's style, tone, and genre?

    Jacobs writes in simple, direct prose that is relatively free from allusion or metaphor. She directly addresses her reader and is oftentimes conversational. She writes with ease and her prose is lucid and free-flowing. Her intellect is apparent, but she shies away from prose that is too turgid or convoluted. Her tone varies throughout the text; sometimes it is sarcastic, sometimes it is biting and condemnatory, sometimes it is placating and humble, sometimes it is sad. Harriet has many things she wants to accomplish in this text, and her shifts in tone might suggest the difficulty in trying to decide if she wants to criticize or spur sympathy in her northern readers. The genre of the work is primarily the slave narrative, which charts the hero/heroine's path through slavery and then to freedom; it is also modeled on the Victorian sentimental novel which features a virtuous heroine up against the wiles and power of a brutal male figure.

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