Despite having been written in the 19th century, Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” has attracted both positive and negative criticism due to its relevance in contemporary studies.
In this novel published in the early 1800s, Jacobs recorded her experiences on the horrors of being a female slave in America. While Jacob assumes an apologetic stance about the behavior of slaves, she still manages to highlight the plight and the perils of the persecuted race. In this novel, Jacob largely dwells on the issue of slavery, specifically the perspective of the female slave.
While Jacobs’ intentions were to tell the world what t is to be a female slave, she manages, to highlight other prevalent social ills that have bedeviled the human race through out history. Suffice to state that the perception of some of the issues highlighted through the novel has been affected by the passing of time. However, analyzing the novel in light of contemporary thinking shows the timelessness of the novel. Regardless of the varied perceptions there are a number of social ills that are intertwined with the theme of slavery.
It is impossible to refer to slavery without mentioning race relations. Slavery is perceived in relation to the master servant relations between the whites and the blacks. Furthermore, sexual perversion, parental negligence as well as general moral decadence cannot be discussed without considering the influence of slavery. Therefore, Jacobs uses slavery to illuminate the existence of societal ills such as moral decadence, racism, sexual harassment and parental negligence,
Harriet’s main intention of writing this book was to highlight the perils of slavery especially to women, yet through slavery, the negative effects parental irresponsibility are observed. Suffice to say that the term parental responsibility was conceived differently in the 19th century America than it is today. In the 19th century America, the perception of the term was heavily influenced by social relations, rather than paternity.
While the definition of parental negligence is taken in the 21st century perception, the evidence is taken from Jacobs’ 19th century occurrences. It is imperative to state that both the black slaves and the white masters, in today’s’ perception of the meaning of the phrase, would be equally accused of negligence of parental duties. Jacobs’ appeals to the reader to understand the peculiar pains the black parents go through implying that the blacks are as powerless (Mian 10).
Yet despite Jacobs appeal such powerlessness would still not excuse them from being accused of parental negligence in the 21st century. As symbolized through Aunt Martha the fact that slave mothers allowed their children to be sold as slaves without much will to resist would be taken as gross violation of parental responsibilities in today’s democratic world.
Yet the whites too are not innocent of parental negligence. In “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” Jacobs shows how rampant the whites neglected and even mistreated children born with the slaves. In today’s perception, such negligence is a social ill, yet it would not be as vivid as it is in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, if it is not taken Vis a Vis slavery.
Despite the fact that Jacobs recording of her recollection of slavery and the subsequent criticism of her works happens in different time in history, her works still manage to uncover gross moral decadence within the society. Again, the perception of moral decadence in this case is influenced by the 21st century thinking.
Within Jacobs work, there exist various instances of what in today’s standards pass as gross violations of social codes of conduct. Yet the immorality within this society can only be uncovered through the evaluations of the effects of slavery. In modern day thinking a person is held responsible of promises made to other, regardless of the prevailing social relations. Yet, Mr. Sands, despite him being the friendliest of the slave owners, breaks promises made to his slaves.
While this may be excusable it is the way in which he sells his slaves including his children that would baffle many of the modern day moralists (Jacobs 145). In Jacob opinion, the slaves can be excused for stealing their masters’ corn, yet stealing by whatever standards is immoral. Yet within this argument, the concept of slave ownership cannot be lost on the readers. Back then, even through it was the norm to own slaves, no moral justification could be given for such acts of immorality.
The concept of slave ownership is founded on debased, insufferable treatment and objectification of the slaves. While the 19th century reader may not appreciate the immorality of exchanging people for money, the 21st first century readers sees this as the vilest form of human rights violations. Yet these forms of moral decay cannot be evaluated in isolation from slavery.
Despite the fact that sexual harassment has been treated as an immoral behavior, in Jacobs’ novel it can be isolated from other forms of immoral behavior since it is mostly implicit, rather than explicit. Yet sexual harassment cannot be seen perceived in isolation from slavery. Suffice to state that the victim of slave sexual torture is the women.
Jacobs perfectly attains the goal of portraying the horrors of sexual harassment by juxtaposing the treatment of male slaves against the female slaves. While the male slaves undergo physical torture such as burning freezing and flogging (Jacobs 109), the females slaves goes through a worse from of torture: sexual harassment. Female slaves are forced to have sexual encounters with their masters, who they hold in much despise (Jacobs 146).
McGlinn and McGlinn try to justify the slave’s owner tendencies to force their female slaves if they “would have healthier babies” (11). Yet such acts, like slavery and slave ownership, are a violation of individual rights to self determination. Amidst the debate of the horrors of sexual violence, it cannot be lost on the reader that slavery also plays a role in exposing the subject if women sexuality.
Jacobs refuses to be Narcom’s mistress and instead marries and has two children with Mr. Sands. Child argues that sexuality in this case portrays the reversal of power between the slave and the master (xxxvii). Thus in Jacob’s novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, sexual violence cannot be isolated from slavery, since it is the tool with which the slave master use to propagate and impose themselves as superior to their slaves.
It is impossible to mention slavery without mentioning race relations. Jacobs perceive the issue of race in relation to the relationships between the blacks and white. In her analyzing, Jacobs presents the perception of both the white and the blacks about themselves and about each other. Despite her good attempt to show the differences in perception about inter racial relationships, she still manages to portray her own personal reflection on the issue of race, thus:
“Truly, the colored race is the most cheerful and forgiving people on the face of the earth. That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or a dog”. (Jacobs 141).
While Child (xlv) argues that such sexual relations between the blacks and the whites are Jacobs’ attempts to bridge the racial gap, the above mentioned assertions by the author show that the blacks bore much of the suffering of this skewed relationship. Jacobs’s assertion thus contradicts Child’s claims since Jacobs sees race relation in terms of the persecutor versus the persecuted (48).
Jacobs argues that the black slaves despite their best efforts to be humane, still get persecuted, their “superabundance of heart” notwithstanding. Mian’s (18) argument comes closer than Childs in explaining race relations in the novel and claims that motherhood is Jacobs most effective way of bridging the gap between the two races.
However, within Mian’s argument the influence of slavery in highlighting other prevalent social ills emerge since she claims that “whether slaves or free, mothers are held in high esteem” (18). In view of Mian’s, Jacobs’ and Child’s argument it is thus clear that slavery illuminates racism as a social ill.
Jacob’s novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” is personal to some extent while still manages to be objective. Primarily, the author intends to give her won personal experiences as a slave woman. Jacob attains this through the juxtaposition of the treatment of the male slave to the psychological torture that the slave woman goes through.
While the novel centre of attention is slavery, other important issues are illuminated. In this regard it can be argued that the issue of slavery is the platform on which Jacobs highlights other prevalent societal ills.
Though unintentional, Jacobs presentation of her experience as a slave also exposes to the reader to the morass that is the sexual relationship between the slaves and their masters. Even though Jacobs relationship with Mr. Sands tries to portray the lighter side of inter racial sexual relationship, there are other instances through which this kin of relationship can only be termed as pervasive. Moreover, parental negligence is also depicted, and manifested through slavery.
The whites neglect children born with their black slaves, sometimes to the extent of selling those children to other slave owners. This highlights the fact that the white took social status as more important than parental responsibility. All these are manifestations of slavery. While Jacobs justifies immoral behavior by the slaves such as stealing, such kind of immorality is portrayed and manifested in relation to slavery.
Amidst the debate on slavery, it cannot be lost on the reader that race is of paramount importance in relation to the notion of slavery. Yet in this novel, it is the grotesque side of the relationship between the blacks and the white that dominates. At best the whites treat the blacks as mere object much to the consternation of the backs. Therefore through slavery, the general moral decadence within this society is underscored.
Child, Maria. Harriet A. Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself. John Harvard Library. 2009. September 30, 2011 http://www.hup.harvard.edu/resources/educators/pdf/JACINC.pdf
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (Electronic ed). 2003. September 30, 2011 http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html#jac173
Mcglinn Jeanne and James Mcglinn : A Teacher’s Guide To The Signet Classics Edition Of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl. 2009. September 30, 2011 http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/IncidentsSlaveGirlTG.pdf
Mian, Naseem. Perversion of Motherhood in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl n.d. September 30, 2011 http://www.wilkes.edu/Include/academics/kirby%20canon/Motherhood.pdf