In 1861, not long before the abolition of slavery, Harriet Jacobs told the world about her life in bondage. Her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written under a pseudonym Linda Brent, was supposed to reveal the truth about the circumstances in which enslaved black people lived in America. Perhaps, the publication of this literary work was not accidental. The author was sure to be aware of the abolition movement that was gaining momentum at that time and wanted to contribute to convincing U.S. citizens of the necessity of ending slavery.
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By depicting the terrors experienced by slaves, sorrows of enslaved mothers, and moral degradation of white people, Jacobs wanted to make free residents of Northern states realize how vile slavery was.
The book can be considered a political text designed to persuade readers that abolition is necessary. In this regard, the author clearly defined her audience in the preface. She wrote that she wanted the women living in the North to understand the conditions in which slaves lived in the Souths, and the sufferings that enslaved women had to undergo (Brent 6). Jacobs believed that the atrocities of slavery could be realized only through experience, which is why she published her account (Brent 6). Thus, her book appealed to free women to evoke their sympathy and motivate them to take action toward abolishment.
The first argument presented in the work concerns the miserable position of a slave. Jacobs wrote that slaves were completely subject to the will of their master, and there was no law that would protect them (Brent 86). In fact, laws applied only to white people, while enslaved black humans were legally treated as property (Brent 86). Slaves worked on plantations from dawn to dusk and were whipped until they bled (Brent 114).
Slaveholders seduced young girls and took away children from desperate mothers (Brent 114). They trained dogs to tear flesh and could set them on slaves (Brent 114). The author argued that enslaved people were prohibited from telling the truth to Northern visitors (Brent 114). Probably, for this reason, the Southern planters succeeded in convincing the rest of the country that slavery was beneficial, and slaves were happy.
While telling about the atrocities that enslaved humans experienced, Jacobs tried to figure out how it was possible that one race became superior to another one. She came to the conclusion that it was white people who imposed their vision of the world on the entire population (Brent 68). The author argued that white men prevented black people from being educated and whipped them to deprive them of any sense of dignity (Brent 68).
She also blamed “human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law” (Brent 68). Jacobs could not understand why free people from the North did not do anything about slavery and why they helped slaveholders to return fugitive slaves (Brent 48). To tell the Northern population about the real living conditions of enslaved humans was an effective argument because free people were likely to be unaware of the terrible state of things. Jacobs’s book could serve as a revelation to humans in the North since the author told the truth, which slaves were forced to suppress.
The second reason for abolition is the deplorable fate of enslaved women. Jacobs wrote that for female slaves, bondage was even worse than for men because they had additional sufferings (Brent 119). The author remembered watching two little sisters playing in the garden, one of them being a slave (Brent 47). This picture made her sad because she realized how different the lives of those children would be (Brent 48). The life of the free girl was going to be “blooming with flowers and overarched by a sunny sky” (Brent 48). However, her slave sister was not so lucky since she had to drink “the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink” (Brent 48). Perhaps, being born a female slave placed a human in the worst position among people in America.
Jacobs provided her readers with details of atrocities experienced by enslaved girls. The author stated that a slave woman had “no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death” (Brent 45). Girls grew up in a climate of lechery and fear (Brent 79). When they reached the age of fifteen years, their master and his sons began to induce them to sleep with them (Brent 79). If young women refused to submit to their will, whips and starvation were used as incentives (Brent 79).
These details were important to discourage people of the free states from thinking that female slaves were inherently promiscuous. The author argued that “the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others” (Brent 86). It was the environment that forced enslaved girls to behave in that way. Therefore, common moral principles could not be applied to them.
The problems of female slaves were not limited to the infringement of their purity. Frequently, girls became mothers as a result of their submission to their masters. The worst part of it was that their infants also became enslaved according to the rule that “the child shall follow the condition of the mother, not of the father” (Brent 118). Since female slaves realized what destiny awaited their infants, they often wished their babies had died because “death is better than slavery” (Brent 96).
Slaveholders could take away slaves’ children at any moment, which made mothers worry about it every day and grieve when it happened (Brent 26). Jacobs appealed to Northern women by saying that they were happy to have their children always with them, with nobody being able to take them away (Brent 26). The account of grieving mothers afraid of parting from their babies and praying for their deaths was sure to evoke sympathy in readers. Since the pains of motherhood are similar for women of any race and social status, the disclosure of sufferings experienced by enslaved mothers could inspire Northern people to struggle against slavery.
The third argument in favor of abolition expressed in the book is the corruptive impact of bondage on white people. The author argued that slavery was as destructive for white people as it was for their servants (Brent 81). It caused men to be cruel and lecherous, and women corrupt and unhappy (Brent 81). When listing the abominations that slaves underwent, Jacobs described one of the masters who was a “highly educated” man boasting about “the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower” (Brent 77).
However, Jacobs was convinced that white people were not conscious of their corruption because they spoke of “blighted cotton crops – not of the blight on their children’s souls” (Brent 81). By showing her concern about the morality of slaveholders, the author tried to persuade those who might not have felt sympathy for oppressed slaves.
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Jacobs paid special attention to the feelings of white women married to slaveholders. While masters indulged in licentiousness with female slaves, their wives felt completely miserable. Jacobs wrote that her mistress hated her because she suspected her in having a bond with her husband (Brent 53). However, she did not blame her mistress for that hatred because she realized that any woman in her position would feel the same (Brent 53).
Many white women were disappointed as they saw that their husbands who were supposed to make them happy cheated on them with slaves (Brent 57). This argument appealed to Northern women’s solidarity with their Southern counterparts. It was effective because even if people in the North were convinced that slaves deserved maltreatment, they would be more compassionate toward humans of the same race.
In conclusion, Jacobs’s account of slavery was intended to disclose the truth to the Northern population, especially its female part, which was under a delusion that slaves were content with their living conditions. To persuade her readers of the necessity of abolition, the author told how cruelly masters treated their servants. Since the main target audience was Northern women, Jacobs provided details about atrocities experienced by girls and mothers. Finally, to convince readers who might not sympathize with black people, the author mentioned how slavery corrupted white humans.
Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: Published for the Author, 1861.