In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs chronicles her alter ego Linda Brent’s quest for freedom. In the process, she gives a deft analysis of the social dynamics of slave-owning households, especially the interactions between enslaved women and white women. In many instances, white “mistresses” behave with appalling cruelty towards female slaves, often out of jealousy or worry that the slaves are sexually attracted to their husbands. Jacobs condemns this behavior, and the demonstrated lack of empathy for sexually abused slaves, while also suggesting that it partly stems from the white women’s powerlessness in their own marriages. Ultimately, Jacobs argues that both black and white women stand to benefit from the abolition of slavery and could further their own interests with mutual cooperation.
Jacobs gives many accounts of the particular abuse doled out to slaves by white mistresses, often in retaliation for their husbands’ infidelities. In response to the widespread practice of male slave owners fathering children with their slaves, most wives don’t confront their husbands – over whom they have no real control – but take out their anger on the slaves, who are blameless. Jacobs describes instances in which white women encourage their husbands to sell off illegitimate children, thus punishing slave mothers for their own abuse.
Mrs. Flint can’t reprimand her husband for his obvious pursuit of Linda, so she takes out all her frustration on the powerless slave: she makes Linda go barefoot in the snow, forces her to sleep on the floor of her own room where Linda fears she might one night kill her, and berates her endlessly. Remarkably, Linda feels empathy for Mrs. Flint, knowing that “she felt her marriage vows were desecrated and her dignity was insulted” by her husband’s actions. However, she points out that Mrs. Flint has no corresponding empathy for her: “she pitied herself as a martyr…but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery” in which Linda is living. Linda’s analysis of this situation shows that Mrs. Flint would probably be happier in a world without slavery; however, given her characterization of her mistress it seems impossible she will overcome her deep-seated racism and anger to realize this herself.
By describing a few exceptions to this pattern of abuse, Linda provides a vision of cooperation between black and white women for their mutual benefit. Linda says that although slavery “deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a fearful extent, it is not altogether extinct.” She knows two white women who have pressured their husbands into freeing their illegitimate children. By displaying the “superior nobleness” of their character, these wives gain increased “respect” from their husbands and “confidence took the place of distrust” in the marriage. Their behavior contrasts with that of Mrs. Flint, who shows the pettiness of her nature and earns her husband’s scorn by abusing Linda.
Another foil to the Flints comes from the Bruces, a couple for whom Linda works in New York. A proponent of abolition, the young Mrs. Bruce exercises great autonomy in her marriage, making decisions about her children independently and eventually acting to purchase Linda’s freedom by herself. Moreover, there’s never a hint of improper advances from Mr. Bruce, even though such behavior is considered normal in the South. Here, Linda has achieved a position of comparative security and respect, and the Bruces enjoy a comparatively egalitarian marriage.
However, it’s important to note that these situations are few and far between, and usually take place in the North, where they are facilitated by the abolition of slavery. While Jacobs envisions an alternate paradigm by the end of the narrative, the bulk of her energy is devoted to protesting the unjust one that currently exists.
It’s important to note that Jacobs was writing for an audience largely comprised of white middle-class women, whom she wants to join her cause. As such, while she criticizes the behavior of female slave owners, she is careful not to condemn white women as a group, to point out the advantages they would gain with the end of slavery, and to warn them of possible consequences should slavery become more acceptable in the North. Her exploration of this subject reflects the painful necessity – common to many slave narratives of her era – of balancing the exposure of terrible injustice with a fairly flattering appeal to her target audience.
Women 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.
The girl’s mother said, “The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven, too.”
“Heaven!” retorted the mistress. “There is no such place for the like of her and her bastard.”
The poor mother turned away, sobbing. Her dying daughter called her feebly… “Don’t grieve so, mother; God knows all about it; and He will have mercy upon me.”
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.
If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it.
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.
But O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished I too could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws…
Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.