By the time you get through high school and college you think you’ve read enough to understand what it was like living under slavery in the South. But you don’t. And you can’t. I’ve read Frederick Douglass and just recently completed reading 12 Years a Slave. Each work opened my eyes to the evils of slavery. Not just the demoralizing and the degradation of the slaves, the cruelty and the animal-like behavior that slave owners acquired as slavery corrupted them. Yet I’ve never read about slavery from a woman’s perspective. Then my wife suggested that I read, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
Jacobs had it easy in the sense that she never had hard labor in the fields nor was she beaten. And she acknowledges this right off the bat. She’s very thankful for what could have been. But then she points out that she shouldn’t have to be thankful that this was even a consideration for her life’s purpose. And that’s what catches the reader’s attention. While Jacobs tells her story as frankly as possible she does a great job of giving us her reasons for her actions as well as her reactions to the responses of those around her.
Unlike Douglass, who I feel spends a lot more time on the philosophy rather than on his story, Jacobs takes the reader with her to experience every word, fear, shiver, and tear. Instead of telling us how we should feel she lets us experience it for ourselves and lets us join her in her abhorrence of slavery.
What makes her narrative unique to those of Douglass or Solomon Northup (12 Years) is that she faced scenarios these men wouldn’t. She faced rape, molestation, and sometimes death at the hands of her masters. For whatever reason, I had never really thought about the sexual degradation of the Southern Plantation society due to their terrible treatment of their female slaves. I think it’s partly because the Puritan North didn’t want to talk about sex and the South was too embarrassed by it so it’s been pretty hush-hush for centuries. But there’s always been hints that masters were raping their slaves. Douglass suspects that his father was his owner and at the very least knows for sure that his father was white. Northup describes his master’s fancy of a slave girl and the mistresses fears that her husband is having sex with her. And Jacobs comes right out and says it. Most of the slave owners either raped or coerced their female slaves into sexual relationships. She even notes that sometimes the sons of slave owners would rape the slave women.
Which brings us to the ethical problems that Jacobs struggled with all her life. What to do with the children born to slave women by white fathers? In fact, Jacobs herself has a white grandfather. Her master has eleven children by slave women, not including the legitimate children born by his wife. yet it seems like no one cares. The only individuals who seem to react to this are the slave owners’ wives. And for good reason! Imagine being the wife of a man who has children with his slaves, making those children his property, and having to see the love-children around the property demonstrating that you as a white woman can do nothing to stop your husband. To assert what little power they could, the white women are left to either encourage their husbands to sell the children (which brings up the issue of selling your own children) or beating the children and/or the slave women who bore them.
It’s this complex issue that really hit home to me the effects slavery has not only the slave but the slave owner. The power these slave owners have not only makes them cruel to the slaves, but it corrupts their own morals and ethics. The power of the slaves makes them violent physically and sexually. It an ironic twist, Jacobs mentions that it wasn’t all that rare to have a young white woman “hidden away” because she was pregnant by a male slave. Not because they were in love, but because she, as a slave owner, had the power to rape a male slave. Imagine having that conversation with your daughter! She’s in trouble for getting pregnant by a slave, yet you don’t get in trouble for getting slaves pregnant.
All in all Jacobs presents the real context for the evils of slavery. Even pointing out that while the North was “anti-slavery” they were certainly “anti-equality”. When she finally escapes she faces prejudice not too far removed from the Jim Crow era. Of course the biggest stain on the abolitionist North is the Fugitive Slave law. Which basically turned the North into slave traders.
It’s a stain on the U.S.’s “equality for all” stance that we all too often ignore. I believe we need to acknowledge it, talk about it, and find a way to make sure we learn from it. We all agree that slavery is wrong, yet look how long it took to achieve equality. And we still struggle with it today! It’s time we take the roots of slavery in hand and yank them out of the soil of this democracy once and for all. By ignoring it we only allow the effects of slavery to linger.