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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl", Harriet Jacobs writes, "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women" (64). Jacobs' work presents the evils of slavery as being worse in a woman's case due to the tenets of gender identity. Jacobs elucidates the disparity between societal dictates of what the proper roles were for Nineteenth century women and the manner that slavery prevented a woman from fulfilling these roles. The book illustrates the double standard of for white women versus black women. Harriet Jacobs serves as an example of the female slave's desire to maintain the prescribed virtues but how her circumstances often prevented her from practicing. Expectations of the women of the era, as stated in class discussions, resided in four arenas: piety, purity, domesticity and obedience. The conditions that the female slave lived in were opposed to the standards and virtues set by society. It resulted in the female slave being refused what was considered the identity of womanhood. It was another manner in which slavery attempted to eradicate the slaves' value of themselves. Jacobs continually struggled to maintain these female virtues. Her belief in the ideas of piety, purity, domesticity and is highlighted in her admiration of one rare, benevolent mistress, The young lady was very pious... She taught her slaves to lead pure lives... The eldest daughter of the slave mother was promised in marriage to a free man; and the day before the wedding this good mistress emancipated her, in order that her marriage might have the sanction of law. (43) Piety was one of the subscribed to virtues. However, in order for one to be pious and obtain religious insight, it would be necessary to read the Bible. This would be an obstacle for the overwhelming majority of slave women as illiteracy was prevalent, Jacobs wrote, . ".. it was contrary to the law; and that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read" (61). As Jacobs knew how to read and write, illiteracy was not an impediment. Yet, slaves were forbidden to meet in their own churches, another catch for the female slave attempting to keep the virtue of piety. Jacobs writes of the difficulties the slaves had in obtaining religious instruction after the Nat Turner insurrection, "The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church... Their request was denied" (57). A slave would only be allowed to practice the religion of their masters, . ".. the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters" (57). A typical sermon would consist of "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters... " (57), this type of sermon had less to do with a woman's piety than a slave's obedience. Nevertheless, Jacobs exhibits piety in many fashions, despite these disadvantages. When services begin in the home of a free colored man, Jacobs was invited to attend as she could read, regardless of the risk to herself "Sunday evening came and, trusting to the cover of night, I ventured out" (57). Jacobs practiced piety as the dictates of the period demanded at a great risk to her safety. She taught a man to read the bible and begs of missionaries to recognize the need to instruct slaves in biblical studies. (61). Jacobs did not only speak of piety, but through these examples, but put it into action and could fulfill this one aspect of the female gender identity. The practice of purity was the virtue most denied to a woman in slavery. Men of society constructed the conventions, established the importance of purity in women. Purity was praised and rewarded in free white women and stolen from black slave women. The system worked against protection of slave women from sexual abuse by their masters. Sexual abuse of slave was not viewed as a criminal offense because she did not count as a woman. Rather, she was property of the owner, who could dispose of her body and he saw fit. Jacobs' master explicitly stated, "He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things" (26). Sexual harassment was taken as a matter of course, "I now entered my fifteenth year, - a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl" (26). Sadly, sexual abuse was accepted almost as a rite of passage for a female slave, that at a certain age, her purity would be stolen. A female slave could not expect to find safe harbor even from the other woman of the house, "The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and outrage" (26). As opposed to acting on behalf of the female slaves, the mistress saw the slave as the problem. Without any assistance, Jacobs consistently attempted to thwart her master's sexual attempts in order retain her purity. Importance of this purity is highlighted in the passage describing her rebellion to build a separate house where he could be alone with her, I vowed before my make that I would never enter it. I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on from day to day, through such a living death. (46). Jacobs viewed the preservation of purity as passionately as any woman but slavery had placed her in circumstances that left her its certain loss. Enslaved women could not even maintain purity if subscribing to the idea of sexual relations occurring within a marriage, as it was typically denied by law or the owner. Jacobs had fallen in love with a free black man We became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl's first love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such... 33) Jacobs is denied marriage to her lover by her owner, "Never let me hear that fellow's name mentioned again. If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will cowhide you both... I'll teach you a lesson about marriage free niggers! " (35-36). However, Jacobs will not allow it to totally destroy her sense of self as a woman. While she has suffered abuse and harassment and the hands of Dr. Flint, Jacobs remained determined that Flint would not "succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet,"(46). As she is not permitted purity, Jacobs decided to take a white lover. If she were to be forced to give up her purity it would be at least . ".. to a man who is not married... It seems less degrading to give one's self, that to submit to compulsion" (47). The quotes show Jacobs' recognition of the sanctity of marriage has well certain personal standards. Jacobs possesses a sense of self, she feels that she deserves to choose her own lover. Regarding her lover she wrote, There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you except that which he gains by kindness... The wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy (47). Jacobs used her own sexuality as a defense, since keeping her physical purity, a right to other women, had been denied to her. By choosing an unattached man, Jacobs explains that does retain a certain moral purity, as much as could be allowed in her situation The denial of a legal marriage and own a home with him ruled out the possibility for domesticity virtue to be achieved. The women in slavery were not married and living with their own husband and children. The master often used the female slave for breeding, the children taken from the mother and sold. Jacobs poignantly narrates this destruction of family through New Year's Day auction of slaves, On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. ... I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me? " I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence. (17) How could the female slave possibly exhibit domesticity in a system where such constructs were not permitted to her? Women in bondage lived in a society where their offspring were not their own, as children . ".. follow the condition of the mother... " (37), they were but the property of the master to be taken and sold at his discretion. While domesticity was highly regarded for the white women, this was not applicable to a black slave "my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties... (33). Yet, domesticity was one of the values that Jacobs most strove to maintain. She had the experience of a traditional family earlier in life speaking of how she had . ".. lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise... " (9). Other black women apparently esteemed domesticity, as Aunt Marthy stated Ah, my child, .... Stand by your own children, and suffer with them till death. Nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children; and if you leave them, you will never have a happy moment" (75). Family and the attempt to preserve some sort of domestic was supreme. Jacobs viewed her refuge in the garret as a means to keep some semblance of domesticity and family life by being near her children. She suffered in seclusion for seven years, residing in the garret that . ".. was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high... " (91). Jacobs did in the name of family, in yearning for domesticity, for through all her discomfiture she was able to take solace and even joy in at least being able to be near her children, "But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children" (92). Jacobs' pains illustrate how strong of a desire for the domestic family life that was denied. Even after obtaining freedom for her children and herself, she writes, "The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own" (156). A traditional family life remained Jacobs' most desiderate dream which she partially obtained in her freedom, but not in the same manner that a white woman could enjoy. The one aspect of the ideal Nineteenth century female that most slave women were able to achieve was that of obedience. It was not the same obedience that the free woman was expected to subscribe to - it was not obedience to her husband, God or family, but slave woman was expected full, unquestioning obedience to her master. This obedience was achieved by physical force and the slaves' knowledge that they were nothing more than property. Obedience was the dictate Jacobs rebelled against. After the refusal of her request for marriage Jacobs recognizes her insolence to her master, "I know I have been disrespectful, sir... ut you drove me to it... " (35). Jacobs could not acquiesce when such an action would be the complete destruction of her body and soul. The institution of slavery was complete subservience and annihilation of a female slave as an individual being. To practice that kind of obedience, to be submissive, would be certain death to Jacobs, whether in the physical or spiritual sense. Jacobs' "disobedience" occurred when her piety, purity and domesticity where threatened. Instead, Jacobs exhorted obedience to the precept of morality. Moreover, she adhered to obedience of what was considered moral and just for white women. The prescribed of ideas of what construed womanhood in the 1800s surrounded a purity, piety, domesticity and obedience. Those were most of the characteristics that were not permitted for the female slave to practice or acquire. Examining the experiences of Harriet Jacobs in "Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl", one witnesses that while Jacobs desired to practice the dictates of her time slavery forced her to often do otherwise
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