In her narrative “Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl,” Harriet Jacobs attempts to describe the role of ‘the home’ in the lives of black slaves, their children and white masters in the American South. While it is evident that the major themes are slavery, gender inequality, and domesticity, it is imperative to determine the roles that a home has in the narrative, especially because it acts as a symbol for other themes.
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Essentially, one of the most powerful ways in which the author documents her experience as a slave is through a comprehensive description of “a home” as space where relations to slavery are shaped.
Nevertheless, an in-depth analysis of the narrative shows that the home is also the position at which these power relations can be challenged or manipulated positively. Arguably, the home is a vital space in which slavery takes place under the influence of race and gender, yet it is the most important space where slaves can fight for their rights.
Jacobs’ Description of the Home
The symbol of the home is used to describe a place or space that facilitates slavery through negative perceptions of gender and race. In Jacobs’ narrative, Dr. Flint’s home portrays a good example of a home, where black people are seen as objects or possessions of the master. Also, black women are perceived as sexual objects that can be used for sexual pleasure at the will of their owners (Jacobs 23).
The relationships between Flint and his slaves, especially black women, are the example of the power relations of enslavement. To Dr. Flint, black women are the asset that he can sell or buy when he wishes. For instance, when living in their home, female slaves must face hard moments because they are forced to satisfy their sexual desires. According to the author, Dr. Flint has about 12 children with his black slaves (Jacobs 124).
Also, Dr. Flint deprives male slaves the freedom and right to enter into relationships with the females of their choice. Because of his jealousy, Dr. Flint is ready to sell any black male suspected in forming an intimate relationship with the black women.
How Does Race and Gender Shape Relations in ‘The Home’?
Within the two types of the home described above, it is evident that race and gender are the important themes that emerge in the narrative. Dr. Flint’s home is an example of the common social system in the American South during American slavery.
First, the author describes racial differences between whites and blacks in their homes and provides an example of how being black subjected African Americans to slavery. The narrative attempts to describe blacks as being born ‘naturally slaves’ for the whites. To society, being black subjects a person to slavery and poverty.
In Dr. Flint’s home, the power to own and control subjects determine the relationships between individuals. For instance, Dr. Flint believes that his power over black slaves gives him the right to sleep with any black woman at his farm. He believes that it is his right to demand respect from black people, which includes free sexual rights. For example, he demands sex from Linda, even though she is only 15 years and immature.
On the other hand, the home also provides some relief or solutions to the problems facing the black people and their women. For instance, it appears that the whites have mutual respect and fear for each other, especially in cases where two white people have assets or important positions in society. This gives relief to slaves because a master cannot force them to take orders if they are in a relationship with another master.
For instance, Linda obtains some freedom from the advances and influence of Dr. Flint when she enters into a sexual relationship with Mr. Sands. To her, Mr. Sands’ home is a space in which she can challenge the evils of slavery, especially because she uses it as a protective shield from the acts of such white masters as Dr. Flint.
Here, she is assured of her children’s safety because the other whites respect Mr. Sands’ home, which makes the enslavement of her children impossible. In such a way, Linda provides her children with support and safety from the enslavement by Dr. Flint.
It is also worth noting that Mr. Sands’ home protects Linda from being arrested and jailed for escaping from Dr. Flint’s farm. Mr. Sands’ home is an example of the white people’s homes that were sometimes a haven for some slaves. Such homes made it possible for the black people to manipulate, challenge, and context the power relations of enslavement.
In addition to these themes, it is worth noting that the home is a symbol of domesticity. In the 18th century, most American women dreamt of a good home. Both black and white women desired to have a family and a good house, where they can raise their children and obtain freedom from the evils of society. The desire for a comfortable and safe home is seen throughout the narrative.
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Linda desires to have a good husband, home, and raise children. Like other women in the society, Linda desired to lead a domestic life. However, domesticity, or being confined to the house because one is a woman, is considered as a paradise and a prison. Domesticity provides black women, especially those married or under the care of white males, with freedom and safety from enslavement.
On the other hand, these homes are like prisons because women are not allowed to leave or enjoy the freedom of movement. An attempt to leave their homes is likely to lead them into slavery and sexual harassment.
The issue of domesticity as a paradise and prison is also portrayed, in a similar way, in other feminist books in America. For instance, in her article, Angela Davis argues that the home was a prison for enslaved women because they were supposed to perform all domestic chores of cooking, child keeping and to care for their husbands, yet they were also expected to work as slaves in the farms alongside their male counterparts (Davis 84).
Similarly, for those in relationship with white males, the home turned to be a space for enjoying their rights and manipulating their fate, yet such changes were minimal. Similarly, Jennifer Morgan argues that the increase in the number of African women in Americas led to women being subjected to harsh labor in the farms, yet they were supposed to give birth, rear children, take care of their homes and perform all other duties of a wife (Morgan 144).
Domesticity was combined with farm labor, which dominated the relations of power within the context of racial and gender-based segregation in the South.
Davis, Angela. “Reflections on the black woman’s role in the community of slaves”. Massachusetts Review 13.1/2 (1972), 81-100. Print
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the life of a slave girl. New York, NY: Penguin books, 2005. Print.
Morgan, Jeniffer L. Laboring women: Reproduction and gender in the new world slavery. Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Print.