Slavery in Harriet Jacobs’s Autobiography
Slavery is a topic that is considered common knowledge in the United States. It was a legal institution that facilitated human bondage, comprised of African Americans and Africans in the United States. Most books provide varied descriptions of the life of slaves. The majority of the books show the superficial effects of enslavement, while others provide autobiographies of slaves. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl tells the story of a woman’s journey to freedom from slavery. Jacobs broadly offers a polemic of enslavement and its adverse effects on the morals of society.1 Teaching slavery in high school and lower educational levels is controversial because many students may not understand the horrors of being a slave. It is critical to review Jacobs’s autobiography to determine how it contradicts and reinforces the prior understanding of slavery of college students before they joined universities.
Jacobs’s text reinforces prior learning and understanding of slavery because of the economic importance of slaves. The slavery system was a United States national program that influenced various people’s political and economic life. Most students in high school learn that slaves acted as a source of cheap labor and worked in plantations or farms to benefit their captors. Africans were transported to the Americas after their capture to work. Many US states depended on enslaved labor from Africans to survive.2 The abundant land that white people possessed was useless without enough labor to utilize it efficiently.
Native Americans and Europeans were not willing to provide cheap labor to plantations and the economy. As a result, African slaves provided labor in cultivating cash crops such as sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton. In addition, some slaves worked in their masters’ homes for free. Similarly, Jacobs’s autobiography shows that Linda Brent, Jacobs’s pseudonym in the text, lived with her master and fulfilled his will. Such behavior shows that they allowed their white captors to make more money. In addition, most slave owners participated in selling their slaves to earn profits.3 Ultimately, Jacobs’s text is similar to a prior understanding of slavery for most students in its ability to describe the economic benefit of selling slaves and cheap labor.
Many students have a superficial understanding of the cause, effects, and persistence of slavery. Most schools mention the topic of slavery while discussing the civil war in a history class. In most cases, some sessions teach the reasons for the long persistence of slavery and its adverse effects on the slaves. Instead, students learn rudimentary, fragmentary, and non-contextual aspects of slavery that are sentimentalized. Teachers may be worried that students cannot handle the painful truth of the horror stories that slaves faced. The topic of bondage focuses on the resistance or escape of the enslaved instead of the violence and restlessness it brought on African families and bodies.4 Jacobs’s autobiography is different from most students’ past understanding of slavery in many ways.
Sexual Abuse and Virtue
Firstly, many students do not have a first-hand description of the sexual abuse that women in slavery went through. Jacobs’s text shows how Linda Brent struggles to maintain her sexual virtue and purity as a slave. Linda is instilled with good morals and principles that fuel her desire to follow the idealization of her female sexual virtues. However, slavery makes it impossible for Linda to respect her feminine chastity as she is exposed to recurring harassment from the lustful Dr. Flint. Linda says, “for years, my master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother.”5 Linda was powerless to reject the sexual advances from Dr. Flint; therefore, she decided to accept sexual advances from Mr. Sands, saving her from rape. As a slave, Linda says she has no chance to “keep myself pure.”6 Such account of Linda’s harassment shows that slaves could be raped since they were not protected by law. Most students have little knowledge regarding sexual abuse and the devastation caused by harassment.
Family and Motherhood
Secondly, most students do not have a comprehensive understanding of slavery from the lens of motherhood and family. Slavery has irreversible effects on family and motherhood, but they are seldomly taught in high school and lower grade level education. However, Jacobs’s autobiography provides a captivating experience of motherhood and family in bondage, which differs from most students’ understanding before joining college. Black mothers are deprived of the chance to exercise legitimate rights on their babies, which can be sold at any time. Slavery eroded the white and black families as the integrity of families of slaves was under constant threat. Jacobs references the pains of mothers who see their offspring sold occasionally. In addition, the necessity of obeying slave owners compromises the bonds that bind parents to children.7 For instance, Linda’s father hid William for failing to answer his command while fulfilling the mistress’s command. Linda’s father wanted her brother William to obey his requests as a son; however, it is impossible because of the interests of slave owners.
Furthermore, slavery caused irreversible effects on families due to infidelity. The habit of slave owners often disrupted the happiness of white families by fathering illegitimate offspring with female slaves. Linda acknowledges that young wives learn that “the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows.”8 Most families were deprived of happiness because the white ladies were constantly reminded of their husbands’ infidelity, as evidenced by children of a different complexion. As a result, the white wives became jealous of female slaves, leading to hatred and mistreatment of enslaved women.
Dehumanizing Qualities of Slavery
Thirdly, the school system before college barely teaches how slavery deprives the enslaved men and women of appreciation as well as fundamental rights and protections enjoyed by white persons. The portrayal of the characteristics of slavery in many books hardly focuses on the inhumane side of bondage. Jacobs shows the strong characters exhibited by slaves, although they are unable to access fundamental human rights. Linda’s grandmother has an excellent work ethic and raises her with good moral convictions. Slaves’ treatment and legal status contrast their kindness and bravery. For instance, while the slaves have done nothing wrong, a raid is conducted, resulting in Linda’s grandmother losing neat tablecloths. White people wanted to have Linda’s grandmother’s belongings because of showing off their power.9 Although Linda’s grandmother has an unafraid and dignified demeanor, the slave owners cannot conceive her as a person with the right of furnishing her home.
Furthermore, slaves who experienced the pain of lash and were oppressed by the harsh conditions of bondage could not live according to their moral dictates. For instance, some slaves are horrified by their masters, making them offer their daughters and wives to their captors. Linda acknowledges that slaves “will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters.”10 Such actions show that slaves accept their inferiority to white people. However, Jacobs argues that the ignorance and cruelty of white men compel the slaves to behave in such a way since they are tortured and whipped daily.11 Before joining college, such an account of slavery is commonly unknown to students as the truth about slavery is often masked.
Since slavery is frequently taught superficially, most students do not comprehend how it erodes moral sense in humanity. Jacobs narrates how people are oppressed by their masters, who want to show off their power. For instance, Mr. Litch locks up a slave who had run away in a cotton gin until death. Such abuse portrays perpetrators who have lost their sense of human empathy. Slave owners are likened to “fiends disguised as men”12 because they seem to have lost their humanity by owning and brutally treating slaves.
It is essential to explore how the understanding of slavery contradicts and reinforces Jacobs’s text among students before joining college. Such an understanding would help identify the flaws in how slavery is taught in early levels of education. For instance, many students only know about slavery because of the topic of civil war in history. However, the horror stories of slavery told from a first-hand experience show slavery had lasting impacts on the enslaved people. In most cases, students are taught about the economic importance of slavery as a source of cheap labor. However, slavery causes sexual abuse, dehumanization, and family problems. Slavery is an important issue that should be taught in schools without masking the truth.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Edited by Jennifer Fleischner. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020.
- Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, ed. Jennifer Fleischner, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 12.
- Jacobs, “Life of a Slave Girl,” 250.
- Jacobs, “Life of a Slave Girl,124.
- Jacobs, 12.
- Jacobs, 90.
- Jacobs, 91.
- Jacobs, 140.
- Jacobs, 73.
- Jacobs, 122.
- Jacobs, 81.
- Jacobs, 157.
- Jacobs, 65.