In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs argues for abolition by detailing the impact of slavery on families in the Southern community where her alter-ego, Linda Brent, grows up. Slavery deprives black mothers of their legitimate rights over their children, who may be sold away or otherwise harmed at any moment; it also creates discord and moral decline among white families whose patriarchs are likely to father children by enslaved women. Jacobs uses the universality of maternal feeling and the vulnerability of enslaved mothers to incite condemnation of slavery. At the same time, her love for her children is also the most empowering experience of her life, driving her to escape slavery and build a new life for her family – ultimately demonstrating much more agency and independence than is socially acceptable for women of her time.
Observing the community around her, Linda frequently discusses the tendency of slavery to erode both black and white families. The integrity of enslaved families is constantly under threat, as children or parents could be sold at any moment; Linda references mothers who see their children sold away from them one by one. Moreover, the bonds that should bind children to parents are compromised by the necessity of obedience to slave owners. For example, Linda’s father once chides her brother William for answering their mistress’s command instead of his own, saying that he should always obey his father first; however, it’s functionally impossible for either father or son to prioritize the interests of their family above the demands of slave owners.
Moreover, the happiness of white families is disrupted by the male habit of fathering illegitimate children with enslaved women. Jacobs describes the consternation of wives who see “children of every shade of complexion” and know they are the siblings of her own babies. Evaluating the disastrous in her own household, Linda concludes that Mrs. Flint would have been much happier without slavery, because she could live without fear of her husband’s flagrant infidelity.
In describing her own relationship with her children, Benny and Ellen, Linda emphasizes that enslaved women share the feelings and concerns of all mothers, and thus should have the same rights to protect and care for their children. In Jacobs’s world, motherhood is the goal of every woman’s life; women have few rights but can gain some respect and status through their role as mothers. By contrast, becoming a mother makes Linda even more vulnerable than before. Not only can Dr. Flint harm or sell her, he can do the same to her children.
Linda emphasizes her love for her children, saying that “when I was most sorely oppressed I found a solace in [Benny’s] smiles.” this links her to her audience of white, often female readers, and encourages them to view her and other enslaved women as possessing “a mother’s instincts” and “capable of feeling a mother’s agonies.” However, she also constantly points out the stark disparity of their positions. For example, in describing a New Year’s celebration she addresses an imaginary free woman, saying that her children are “your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you,” and compares her to “the slave mother…watching the children who might be torn from her the next morning.” Juxtaposing these two realities, she argues against slavery in terms of its disregard for the traditional, valued bonds of motherhood.
Although becoming a mother exposes Linda to more worry and pressure, it also proves to be a highly empowering experience. Linda has often wanted to escape slavery, but she never actually attempts to do so until she becomes a mother. It’s the threat that her children might have to work on the plantation that gives her the courage to run away. After she arrives in New York, Linda is motivated by the necessity of earning enough money to make a home for her children, without ever depending on another man; it’s this necessity that keeps her strong and determined even when Dr. Flint sends people to find her.
Although Linda’s children are the fruit of an extramarital affair for which she feels much shame, it’s they who help her finally move past this period of her life. Telling her mother that “all my love is for you,” Ellen validates her mother and allows her to come to terms with the hardest part of her past.
In the last chapter, Linda says that “my story ends…not in the usual way, with marriage” but with freedom and reunification with her children. At this point, she’s implicitly disowning the idea of marriage altogether and embracing a new paradigm of female independence. Although she has invoked traditional maternity tropes throughout the narrative, at this point motherhood is encouraging her to pursue a progressive and less conventional way of life.
Throughout the narrative, Jacobs illustrates the harmful effects of slavery on both white and black families. She uses the universality of her maternal feelings to appeal to the reader and create sympathy, but motherhood also leads her to cultivate an independent lifestyle that was highly unconventional in her time.
Motherhood and Family ThemeTracker
Motherhood and Family Quotes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
But to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from her childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of a mother’s agonies.
He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of…But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him … He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.
The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness.
I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched.
We knelt down together, with my child pressed to my heart, and my other arm round the faithful, loving old friend I was about to leave forever. On no other occasion has it ever been my lot to listen to so fervent a supplication for mercy and protection. It thrilled through my heart, and inspired me with trust in God.
I replied, “God alone knows how much I have suffered; and He, I trust, will forgive me. If I am permitted to have my children, I intend to be a good mother, and to live in such a manner that people cannot treat me with contempt.
I thought that if he was my own father, he ought to love me. I was a little girl then, and didn’t know any better. But now I never think any thing about my father. All my love is for you.
Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage….The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own.