Harriet Jacobs and Womanhood

Topics: Black people, White people, Slavery Pages: 5 (1708 words) Published: July 25, 2007
A literary critic in our modern world might say that Harriet Jacobs' autobiography contains self-justification, confession, and an unrefined expose of society's once flawed system. Her work in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl certainly set the standard for a new type of slave narrative—one written by the female sex geared towards a female audience. Jacobs explores the myths and realities surrounding African American womanhood in bondage and its relationship to 19th century standards associated with the white-dominated so-called "Cult of Womanhood." In trying to reach free white women of the north, Jacobs explains, "I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself […] I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered" (p 281). Jacobs even writes of her experiences under the false name of Linda Brent and masks important people and places, not wanting to take the readers' empathy and understanding for granted. Jacobs was far ahead of her time in realizing that to achieve strides for abolition, the vital relationship between black and white women needed to be considered. In her autobiography, Jacobs establishes this relation and arouses empathy, connecting women on the topics of sexual victimization and maternal emotions, then directly addresses her white audience to prove that the experiences of the races are worlds apart. She goes on to express a bold truth, stating many times that in the Southern world of enslaved black women, the morality of free Northern white women has little ethical relevance or authority. Because female slaves undergo such mental and emotional torment, they absolutely cannot be judged by the moral or legal standards of the free world. As the first female to write a slave narrative in the United States, Harriet Jacobs laid groundbreaking work by depicting the emotional anguish of slave women. This was key in developing a textual relationship with her predominantly female audience—Jacobs could arouse empathy while subconsciously motivating the reader to act out against the hardships upon realizing their degree of truth. One important theme that recurs in Incidents is the shame and victimization of enslaved black women experienced through constant sexual harassment and dehumanization by white masters. Linda Brent (Jacobs' autobiographical character) speaks of her master Dr. Flint and the corruption of mind and soul that he begins when Brent is a mere fifteen years old. She remembers that, "My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt" (p 287). He even "resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes" (p 287) of stripping Linda of the strong Christian morals that had been instilled by her grandmother. Dr. Flint continued to dehumanize the young girl, telling Linda "I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things" (p 288). She had nobody to turn to, not a soul to confide in; terrified by what reaction her grandmother might have to the treatment, Linda kept Dr. Flint's words inside and was forced to struggle with the mental torture each day. As a slave, a mere piece of property, confiding in the mistress was not even an option; Southern white women created enough tension between the female slaves owned by their husbands. Brent explains,

Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves […] She listens to the outbreaks of jealous passion […] Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall. […] If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only...
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