Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl tells the autobiographical story of one woman’s journey from slavery to freedom. Over the course of her memoir, in which she tells her story under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs broadly critiques slavery and its harmful effect on a society’s morals. While many of the slaves around Jacobs are good people of strong character, their owners and the legal system refuse to recognize these qualities, instead depriving them of the most basic protections and rights accorded to white people. Moreover, by participating in the dehumanization of others, slave owners forfeit their own humanity, losing their moral impulses and functioning according to cruelty and fear. Ultimately, Jacobs argues that slavery comes at a huge cost not just to the material and psychological well-being of slaves, but the moral character of slave owners as well.
In Jacobs’s narrative, the strong characters of the slaves she lives among contrast starkly with their inability to access even the most basic human rights. Linda often discusses the positive character traits displayed by members of her family and community. Her Grandmother is a stalwart woman with a hard work ethic, who manages to buy the freedom of some of her children; after Linda’s parents die, Grandmother raises her and imbues her with strong moral convictions. Friends like Aunt Nancy and Betty risk themselves to help Linda hide from Dr. Flint, and a slave named Peter helps her board a ship to Philadelphia even though there’s no possibility of escape for him.
Linda contrasts the bravery and kindness of these people with their legal status and treatment at the hands of white society. One night, a drunken raiding party searches Grandmother’s house and paws through her neat tablecloths, saying “white people ought to have them.” Even though Grandmother’s dignified and unafraid demeanor highlights their own boorishness, they can’t conceive of her as a human woman with the right to furnish her own home. Similarly, when Linda marvels at Peter’s ingenuity in devising an escape method for her, she breaks off to reflect that this kind and intelligent man is “a chattel…liable, by the laws of a country that calls itself civilized, to be sold with horses and pigs.”
At the same time, she speaks of slaves who are “so brutalized by the lash” and oppressed by the conditions of slavery that they can’t live according to moral dictates – for example, she says, some men are so terrified of their masters that they “will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters.” While slave owners use behavior like this as justification that black people are “inferior” and deserve to be enslaved, Jacobs asserts that it’s actually a result of slavery and an argument against it.
Besides being demonstrably unjust to its victims, slavery “deadens the moral sense” in the people who practice it. Linda punctuates her narrative with descriptions of cruelties that masters impose on their slaves, often simply to enjoy their own power. She cites Mr. Litch, who locks up a runaway slave in a cotton gin until he dies, and an invalid man who whips a slave who takes care of him and ensures his survival. Abuses like these characterize their perpetrators as having lost touch with any shred of human empathy. Jacobs often refers to slave owners, particularly Dr. Flint, as beasts or “fiends disguised as men,” suggesting that they forfeit their humanity by participating in the ownership of other humans.
Jacobs also shows how slavery corrupts the most basic and socially valued instincts, like respect for the bonds between mother and child. Under slavery, it’s considered acceptable for white men to father children with their slaves, but not to acknowledge them or set them free. Rather, they often sell their own babies away from their mothers; Linda’s paramour, Mr. Sands, shows little concern for their children, although it’s in his power to free them. Here, slavery excuses the practice of having children out of wedlock (which Jacobs and her contemporaries condemned as immoral) but discourages the natural love that parents should feel for their children.
For women, as well, slavery causes the erosion of what were considered natural impulses. Jacobs includes a jarring scene in which a mistress, herself a mother, jeers at the deathbed of a dying slave and insults her mother. Because this woman has been corrupted by slavery, she loses the respect for motherhood which Jacobs and her readers would have considered essential to the character of all women. In this scenario it’s the dignified slave mother, treated by society as less than a full person, whose humanity emerges much stronger than that of the white woman.
Like many abolitionists and authors of slave narratives, Jacobs points out the clear injustice of slavery and condemns slave owners for participating in a social evil. However, she also extends this stance by arguing that owning slaves impugns people’s most basic moral character and compromises their actions in every area of life.
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery ThemeTracker
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Quotes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.
I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach…
When my grandmother applied for him for payment he said the estate was insolvent, and the law prohibited payment. It did not, however, prohibit him from retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that money. I presume they will be handed down in the family, from generation to generation.
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.
For my master, whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking whom to devour, had just left me, with stinging, scorching words; words that scathed ear and brain like fire. O, how I despised him! I thought how glad I should be if some day when he walked the earth, it would open and swallow him up…
She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.
Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters. Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave…
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.
Yet that intelligent, enterprising, noble-hearted man was a chattel! Liable, by the laws of a country that calls itself civilized, to be sold with horses and pigs!
I did not discover till years afterward that Mr. Thorne’s intemperance was not the only annoyance she suffered from…he had poured vile language into the ears of [Grandmother’s] innocent great-grandchild.
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.