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Struggle for freedom was a lifelong event during the slavery era. Slave trade was a norm and slave-owners had all reasons to justify this beastly business. Blacks went through untold suffering and many died as slaves. Nevertheless, there are few who lived to gain freedom they craved for years.
Those who lived to gain their freedom lived also to tell their story. Harriet Jacobs is such one person who lived to tell her story as she narrates it in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Even though Jacobs conceals the real names of the characters in this story, this is a real life experience of what she went though under slavery. This book addresses issues like strategies that slave-owners in South used to justify slavery, survival mechanisms amongst slaves and her refusal to accept North as ‘free soil’ among other issues.
Jacobs on Slavery
Slave-owners in the South sought to support slavery by purporting to treat their slaves (property) well. In chapter three, Jacobs elaborates the events that would happen during the New Year, the fact that the hiring day coincided with New Year’s holidays is a show that the Southerners wanted to paint slavery as something good.
During this time, “some masters give them a good dinner under the trees… they are given four or five holidays” (Jacobs 25). These are some of the ‘lies’ and ‘tricks’ that the Southerners would use to justify slavery. After all, they would claim that they treated their slaves well; therefore, slavery was not bad at all.
Nevertheless, the Southerners resorted to other barbaric ways of justifying that slaves were their property. For instance, “If a slave is unwilling to go with his new master, he is whipped, or locked up in jail, until he consents to go and promises not to run away during the year” (Jacobs 27).
The whipping and jailing of unwilling slaves showed that they were their master’s property. Slave owners forced slaves to ‘consent’ and ‘promise’ that they would remain loyal to them for a whole year; they used these ‘’exhorted’ promises and consents to justify that slaves belonged to them. However, despite the many challenges that slaves faced, they had ‘survival mechanisms’ that enabled them to maintain their cultural and social aspects.
Culture does not die easily and this is evident from the way slaves upheld their culture in this story; moreover, human beings are social animals and not slavery would stop this human nature. For instance, despite the fact that Linda was a slave, she fell in love with a black carpenter. She says, “I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl’s first love (Jacobs 36).
Love is part of social well-being; something that slavery could not kill. In chapter ten, Linda fell in love with Mr. Sands; actually, they had two children from this relationship. However, Linda loved Mr. Sands to survive Mr. Flint’s sexual advances and torment.
She confesses, “I was determined that the master, whom I so hated and loathed…should not, after my long struggle with him, succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the sake of defeating him” (Jacobs 54). Loving Mr. Sands was one of the ways Linda would use to defeat Mr. Flint; therefore, this was a survival mechanism, not free will love.
Slaves supported each other greatly. After, Linda escaped from Mr. Flint’s plantation; she was supported and protected by her grandmother’s friends. Sally played a crucial role by helping Linda reach the house of another grandmother’s friend. Helping each other was more than a choice, without the help from fellow slaves; no salve would make a successful escape. On the other hand, slavery did not stop some cultural practices like Christmas festivities.
They celebrated Christmas adorned with cultural aspects like “Two athletic men, in calico wrappers …cows’ tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns…the gumbo box…other strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time…composing songs, which are sung on this occasion” (Jacobs 78). These are all manners of cultural and social practices that defied the intimidation of slavery and thrived amongst slaves. However, was North a ‘free soil’ as many loved to refer it?
After Linda reached Philadelphia, she received warm welcome from Rev. Jeremiah Durham; however, the discriminatory nature of the North hit her during their trip to New York. Linda learnt that as a black, she could not travel in first-class cabins of the train.
This shocked Linda for it did not conform to the ‘free’ status that the North had received all along. On her way to Albany, Linda was told, “Get up! You know you are not allowed to sit here” (Jacobs 98). This is discrimination and as it occurred to Linda, the North was not free as many people in the South thought.
In another incidence, whilst at Rockaway for summer, Linda “found the same manifestations of that cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people” (Jacobs 100). This was the situation in the North; discrimination and prejudice at every corner of the city. Upon returning to Boston, Linda found that Ben had gone on voyage to escape torments from his white friends who had realized that he was of ‘color.’
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Later on, Jacobs refuses to accept the North as a ‘free soil’ given the discrimination that she faced. Her refusal to recognize the North as free did not come as a surprise to me because of what Linda went through in the North. The discrimination and abuse that both Linda and her son Ben underwent is enough justification of Jacobs’ refusal to acknowledge the North as ‘free soil.’
At some point, Jacobs says, “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of 2 millions of women at the South, still in bondage” (109). In this statement, Jacobs was calling people from across nations, to rise up and campaign against slavery in the South. Even though Jacobs seemed to address women, she was concerned about all people under slavery. She knew that women suffered the most under slavery and this is why she used women in particular.
In the North, even though discrimination and abuse existed, it was not as pronounced as in the South and Jacobs new that a movement from the North would stop slavery in the South. This statement aligned with the fact that Jacobs at one point supported her brother to start “an anti-slavery reading room in Rochester.
She agrees to work with him…” (Jacobs 196). The above statement came from the fact that she was an antislavery. Simply put, Jacobs wanted to highlight the plight of women slaves who were languishing under slavery in the South at the time she wrote this book. By this statement, Jacobs was saying, arise, and stand against slavery in the south for our mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers are still wasting away under slavery in the South.
My thoughts about slavery changed greatly after reading Jacobs’ story. My reaction was that slavery was evil; after reflecting on what Jacobs, her family and friends went through under slavery, I was bitter and I could only find one word to describe slavery; evil. It beats logic why a human being would subject another fellow human being to such untold sufferings simply because they are of different colors.
Humanity transcends color and runs deep into the soul like slow moving waters. My impression about slavery has changed forever and never will I support the justifications that come with it. No amount of justification can explain why a human being would treat fellow human being to these sufferings that slaves went through in the South.
There is a big advantage of reading such a personal account on slavery. As a reader goes through these primary accounts, he/she gets to obtain first hand information about the situation under context. As the old adage goes, the more a story is told from secondary sources, the more it loses sense and this adage applies well when it comes to reading primary sources; they give more insights to a situation than secondary sources.
Slavery was a common place in the South in the Seventeenth century and Jacobs happened to be a victim of this barbaric situation cum business. In her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs lucubrates what she went through as a slave girl.
Southerners used different unsound methods to justify slavery. For instance, they carried out slave trading during the New Year’s celebrations to fool the world that it was something good. They forced slaves into ‘exhorted’ consents that would keep them loyal to their masters for a whole year hence making slaves their properties.
The situation in the North was not that different from the South as discrimination and abuse of blacks prevailed in the Northern community; something that Jacobs painfully learnt when she got there. Jacobs called for people from the world all over to come out and oppose slavery because it was inhuman as she exposed in her writing. This book changed my perspective about slavery as it gives personal experience of someone who tasted slavery.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Negri, Paul. (Ed.) New York; Dover Publications, 2001.