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Let’s discuss how Harriet Jacobs challenged the pro-slavery ideals of her time through her writing

Front cover of Incidents in the life of a slave girl

Slave narratives were a powerful tool in abolishing the slave trade and were significant in creating a voice for the slaves and showing the human experience of slavery. An important slave narrative is that of Linda Brent synonym Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

She was a slave who struggled for years against her oppressive master and bravely ensured both her own and her children’s freedom. Within this slave narrative Harriet challenges conceived notions of the importance and justification of slavery and pro-slavery ideas. She challenges the religious morality of the slave-owners, their view that slaves were inhuman and the treatment of female slaves.

Harriet and her fellow slaves are represented as the subaltern subject, a group suppressed by a dominant other, ‘in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history, and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’ (Spivak 1988: 28). Harriet is fighting against her oppressors so as to ensure her freedom and save other slaves from the ‘grasp of demon slavery’ (Jacobs 1861: 27).

A key pro-slavery idea challenged by Harriet Jacobs is that of religion and the slave-owners belief in their religious superiority.

When colonising America in the 17th century the colonists felt themselves to be morally superior to that of the natives and justified colonisation by saying the natives were heathens due to their lack of religion, and so it was the colonists’ duty to teach the natives their religion as they were viewed as immoral.

This view was still held by the slave-owners and whites in South America in the 19th century. This act of controlling the subaltern subject through religion is known as hegemony. ‘Hegemonic means of social control, whereby marginalised and suppressed peoples are encouraged to accept the ideas and values of the dominant classes’ (Ransome 1992).

However as shown by Harriet Jacob’s the business of slavery was a contradiction to religious teachings, ‘slaveholders pride themselves on being honourable men… to hear the enormous lies they tell their slaves you would have small respect for their veracity’ (Jacobs 1861: 21). Jacobs talks about how the slave-owners justify their actions by demonising the slaves and seeing them as ‘merely a piece of property’ (Jacobs 1861: 3).

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Yet it is the slave-owners who are represented as morally corrupt and how religion is a mere chore to them, ‘she was a member of the church; but partaking of the lord’s supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind… she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash’ (Jacobs 1861: 4).

This shows the hypocrisy of slave-owners that they preach to others that they must be Christian and yet so casually disregard it themselves. The roles between the slaves and the colonists/slave-owners have now reversed, the slave-owners are now viewed as the beasts and the slaves are shown to have more Christian feeling, ‘It was a beautiful faith coming from a mother who could not call her children her own’ (Jacobs 1861: 7).

The use of sarcasm is rife within Harriet’s narrative as she challenges the lies surrounding the religious superiority of the slave-owners and their families, ‘The honour of a slaveholder to a slave!’ (Jacobs 1861: 1) she feels there is no honour on the side of the slave-owner who is more concerned with money that the treatment of fellow human beings.

Harriet Jacobs

Another pro-slavery idea challenged by Harriet Jacobs is the idea that the slaves were inhuman. It was believed they were beneath the human race and so the slave-owners felt it morally acceptable and even encouraged to treat them in such a barbaric way, ‘regard such children as property, as marketable as pigs on the plantation’ (Jacobs 1861: 17).

The slave owners felt that the slaves were incapable of human emotion and so therefore they should have no human rights. Jacob’s challenges this idea and states the slave-owners to be the violent ones, they are the ones who lack human emotion and by showing both her own and her fellow slaves human emotions through her writing she contradicts this belief, ‘this poor creature had witnessed the sale of her children… without any hopes of ever seeing them again’ (Jacobs 1861: 68).

By showing the pain and emotion of the slaves Jacob’s tries to break through the curtain of lies that shroud slavery, ‘the secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the inquisition’ (Jacobs 1861: 17), and to gain sympathy from the reader and support for abolition. ‘What mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery’ (Jacobs 1861: 31) this shows the sheer desperation of the slaves, that they would rather their child die than live through the pain they suffer.

The stereotypes of the slaves and the supposed ‘superior race’ have once again been reversed with the slave-owners exposed to be the ones who are inhuman. Jacobs refers to the lack of humanity and emotion showed by the slave-owners towards the slaves, ‘I would shoot him, as I would a dog’ (Jacobs 1861: 20), exposing how through their prejudices they have become blind to the basic rules of humanity and the respect you should have for a fellow being.

Mary Prince, a fellow slave writer also conveys a sense of pain in her narrative and urges with the readers in England to no longer be ignorant to slavery and to help the abolitionists to free the slaves, ‘Oh the horrors of slavery!–How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave–I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free (Prince 1831: 11).

Slave-owners were viewed as the honourable sect of society who maintained the hierarchy of race by controlling those who they saw as beneath them. They hid behind this disguise of honour whilst promoting the business of slavery. However this idea of honour is laid bare in Jacobs’s narrative as she exposes the truth, ‘my master began to whisper foul words in my ear’ (Jacobs 1861: 13) and the true treatment of slave girls at the hands of their so called upstanding masters is revealed.

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In the 19th century women were viewed as delicate beings that needed to be sheltered and protected, a stark contradiction to the treatment of slave girls, ‘women were seen as needing social and moral protection from male tyranny. This was not compatible with the ‘physical brutalization of females and…[the] disregard for black motherhood and maternity’ (Beckles, 2000: 173), ‘women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owners stock. They are put on a par of animals’ (Jacobs 1861: 24).

Female slaves suffered from the double negative of black race and female gender which only created more issues with how the readers viewed her credibility, ‘the reception of Incidents arrested to the continuing difficulty of Jacob’s, or any black woman writer’s, gaining an audience: faced with the “double negative” of black race and female gender’ (Garfield, Zafar 1996: 4).

The “double negative” also contributed to the treatment she suffered at the hands of her masters, ‘slavery is terrible for men; but it is more terrible for women’ (Jacobs 1861: 39). The slave-owners would often berate their slaves and justify their actions by claiming the slaves to be beasts and yet they were the ones who abused their slaves in a beastly manner, ‘peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of’ (Jacobs 1861: 13).

Jacobs states how slavery is not a positive influence on the white race as the slave-owners would have them believe, but is instead a curse, ‘I can testify from my own experience… that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as the blacks’ (Jacobs 1861: 26), slavery is turning them into monsters who disregard their religion and their humanity, ‘the white-faced, black-hearted brother’ (Jacobs 1861: 36).

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It is also spoken of how the slave-owners treat their own children who are conceived out of their disgrace, if the child has a slave mother then it must ‘follow the condition of the mother’ (Jacobs 1861: 21) and be ‘reared for the market’ (Jacobs 1861: 26). Showing a distinct lack of feelings towards their own flesh and blood on the part of the slave-owner. However the rule that the child follows the ‘condition of the mother’ only applies if the mother is a slave because if the mother is white and the father is a slave then ‘the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen’ (Jacobs 1861: 26) showing a complete disregard for the commandment thou shalt not kill.

Most female slaves were not even allowed to act like mothers to their own children, ‘I longed to be entirely free to act a mother’s part towards my children’ (Jacobs 1861: 86), and there was indignation on behalf of the slave-owners wives that slaves should be allowed to do so, ‘considered it alright and honourable for her, or her future husband, to steal my children; but she did not understand how anybody could hold up their heads in respectable society, after they had purchased their own children’ (Jacobs 1861: 72).

This represents how warped the minds of the slave-owners and their families had become when they felt they had more right to own another being than for them to be with their families, a basic human right.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative challenges fundamental pro-slavery ideas and aims to abolish the business of slavery. Her narrative however can be viewed as subjective and therefore biased causing the readers at the time it was published to question its authenticity.

At the time of the publication of slave narratives there was a stigma that slave writers were melodramatic in their accounts and so the readers often failed to believe them continuing their support for slavery ‘Jacobs.. had to contend with a sceptical readership that said her work could not be “genuine” because of her emphasis on the domestic, her “melodramatic” style and her unwillingness to depict herself as an avatar of self-reliance’ (Garfield, Zafar 1996: 4).

To try to connect with the reader and to convince them of her narratives authenticity Jacobs speaks directly to the reader, ‘I am telling you the plain truth’ (Jacobs 1861: 17) and states that ‘I do not say there are no humane slaveholders. But they are like angels visits- few and far between’ (Jacobs 1861: 25), showing she is not biased against all slaveholders just those who violate the very core of humanity.

Harriet writes that she knows the readers will not believe what she says, ‘the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe…greater than you would willingly believe’ (Jacobs 1861: 13) she states they will not believe her as they cannot possibly know what it is like to be a slave, ‘O virtuous reader! You never know what it is to be a slave; laws reduce you to the condition of chattel… subject to the will of another’ (Jacobs 1861: 28).

Jacobs also questions the authenticity of pro-slavery writings, she speaks of how their writing is deceptive and do not show the true reality of the life of a slave, ‘men go to see slave-owners and encounter favourite slaves in comfortable huts’ and they complain of the ‘exaggerations of abolitionists… what does he know of… girls dragged down into moral filth? Of pools of blood around the whipping post?’ (Jacobs 1861: 38).

She shows herself to be in contrast to pro-slavery writers to be writing a stark and truthful account of the barbaric nature of slavery, not shying away too much from topics such as rape which was not something women were supposed to mention in the 19th century regardless of their status, ‘for the female slave to give a first-hand account of her personal experiences was to contradict nineteenth-century ideas regarding the ‘privacy of “woman”’ (Fisch, 2007: 232).

There is also in parts a lack of evidence such as letters which had been sent to Harriet from her master which were lost but this lack of evidence could of discouraged belief in Harriet’s narrative, ‘absence of materials, may be due to the highly contested theoretical and methodological problems relating to the study of the subaltern subject – problems that are further exacerbated when the subaltern is female’ (Morton 2012).

The editors comments at the end of the narrative also tries to provide Harriet with credibility helping to show the readers that her account is honest and not a fabrication, ‘the author of this book is my highly- esteemed friend’ (Child 1861: 304) showing that she has trust in the writer and therefore so should the reader.

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This is also the case with the narrative of Mary Prince, for whom the issue of authenticity was also a problem with many not believing her account, likely due to the fact that she like Harriet was a female slave writer. The editor therefore states that, ‘the narrative was taken down from Mary’s own lips… no fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added.

It is essentially her own, without any material alteration farther than was requisite to exclude redundancies and gross grammatical errors, so as to render it clearly intelligible Pringle 1831: i).

Slave narratives like that of Harriet Jacobs were used as a tool by abolitionists in their campaign for abolition and were used to reveal the experiences of the slaves, ‘the narratives quickly became the movement’s most essential texts, providing eyewitness accounts of slavery’s brutal reality’ (Fisch 2007: 28).

Jacob’s not only challenges pro-slavery ideas such as religious superiority, the dehumanisation of slaves and the treatment of female slaves, but she also challenges the very principals of the slave-owners and their complete lack of humanity.

1 comment on “Let’s discuss how Harriet Jacobs challenged the pro-slavery ideals of her time through her writing

  1. Wow. Awesome article. I’ve never really read much of the work from former slaves discussing their experiences but I think I need to start.

    Like

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