“I was born a slave, but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away,” recalls Harriet Ann Jacobs in her riveting autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Published in 1861, the novel chronicles Jacobs’ life from childhood to adulthood as she plans and executes her escape from slavery to the North.
Initially, I was pretty skeptical about reading this novel.
It wasn’t because I thought it would be a waste of my time; I felt reading a novel about the struggles of slavery written from the perspective of a woman would be too much for my semi-fragile emotional tendencies to handle.
Let’s face it, for some people, it is easier to read and digest the horrible truths of previously enslaved men than it is to read about the horrible realities women faced during slavery.
Incidents is the first of its kind as a slave narrative. It introduced me to an aspect of slavery often overlooked: sexual abuse and the struggle of motherhood.
Typically, a slave narrative revolves around a main character, usually a male, who finds a way to rebel against his master or escape from the bonds of slavery. This is why Jacobs’ story stood out, even amongst the most brutal and gory recollections of life as a slave from authors such as Frederick Douglas.
Once she reaches puberty, Jacobs finds herself in a predicament in the home of Dr. Flint and his mad wife. Not only does Jacobs have to constantly ward off Dr. Flint’s unwanted advances and face threats of being sent to a plantation for refusing him, but she is constantly fearful of what his wife may do to her.
Parts of the novel were especially hard to absorb, particularly when Dr. Flint sought to harm Jacobs’ infants as a means to emotionally “motivate” her into submissiveness. Though her skin remained untouched from the lashes of a whip, her morality was sacrificed as a means to escape the horrors she faced behind closed doors.
Though Jacobs eventually managed to escape her deplorable situation and make it to the North, the damage to her mental state was practically irreversible. One can only try to understand her struggle of ridding herself of Dr. Flint’s influence, but the reality is, unless one has experienced similar circumstances, one can never fully understand abuse and trauma of the same magnitude.
This novel redefined the manner in which house slaves were portrayed in the media.
Based on historical accounts, plantation slaves commonly described house servants as having an air of superiority. Most house slaves could read and write or were educated by their white superiors, and often treated with a higher sense of respect.
Jacobs subtly combats this presumed state of elitism that the house slaves posses. It becomes painfully clear that what is depicted to the world by the slaveowners is simply that: a presentation.
A mother of two, Jacobs’ quest for freedom stems solely from her desire to prevent her children from feeling as if they were property.
The topic of motherhood in slave narratives usually begins with the birth of the child and ends with the child being taken from the mother. The mother is often forced to forget her grievances and continue with her duties as a slave, and as a product of sexual and physical abuse for her masters’ desire.
The topic of sexuality is conveyed through the eyes of a teenage girl. Readers are then made privy to the deplorable actions of slave owners. One would think slave owners would not even dare approach the idea of having sexual relations with slave girls as young as fifteen. It is even more disturbing when one considers that many slave owners had daughters who were the same age.
If there was a way to convey to an audience that slave women were literally nothing more than objects of lust and pleasure to the white man, Jacobs succeeds in driving that point past the breastbone, through the pericardium and straight to the heart.
Fast forward to 2015, where black women are often depicted as objects of sexual desire, not only for white men, but for all men, which only goes to show just how deep the consequences of slavery run.
The depiction of black women as sexual objects began with illustrations of the European idea of women from Africa. Think Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, also known as Hottentot Venus.
Rather than deviate from these views, society has propelled them further, marketing women as having full figures and lips with long, straight hair who are as promiscuous as they are alluring.
Black women often feed into these Europeans ideals, through skin alteration treatments, relaxing their hair to get rid of their natural “naps,” and denouncing a culture they should feel proud to call their own.
Incidents is truly a coming of age novel that aims to discuss women’s societal position in relation to men’s. It sheds light on a different kind of cruelty, one that borders on mental torment more than it does on the physical.
A first of its kind, Jacobs’ story served as a powerful speaking voice for the majority of slave women in the South whose lives followed a similar path.
Octavia Huston is a junior English major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.