Abraham Lincoln once said, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”. At face value, this statement seems slightly embellished, however, after studying Harriet Jacobs’ novel, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, it becomes remarkably transparent. Jacobs’ novel works to exploit the dreadful malady that slavery truly was and attempts to offer a solution to the epidemic. However, she stresses time and time again, no solution will ever be successful unless it is a joint effort by blacks’ and whites’ alike. Slavery affected the moral compass of every white Christian just as much as it demolished every black person’s soul. This is the curious aspect of slavery that was unstudied before Jacobs’ novel – that not only were African American slaves affected, but the slaveowners, their families, and even the Northerners who did not own slaves, were also victimized by this terrible pandemic.
This is why the solution to slavery will require a profuse amount of effort, as defeating this beast requires reevaluating one’s morals as well as values. Slavery in of itself is an unethical standard of behavior that was practiced by many American citizens in the late 1800’s; it was an evil that spread quickly throughout the country – a disease that refused to halt until it butchered not only one’s soul, but also their being, as well as their interpersonal connections with one another. Whether or not one took part in this immoral act, they were still affected drastically by the harsh behavior it brought in its wake: indifference.
This plague was brought upon the people, and it caused them to lose their compassion and humanity. Furthermore, it promoted the notion that due to an external quality, namely, skin color, one man was less human than the next. This essay will evaluate and attempt to prove how slavery affected not only those directly and blatantly oppressed by it, but everyone around them as well. In the analysis of the groups affected, one question arises: how does Harriet Jacobs suggest curing this disease? Via a close reading of various passages in her novel, the answer will become clear: through compassion from the white population. And from the slaves themselves? The revolt against slavery should be a silent killer; a cancer that destroys without any symptoms: through motherhood, and through expression of free will.
Slavery is a monstrous concept that affects everyone who comes into contact with it. Evidentially, those affected most are the slaves themselves. The African American people were infected severely by this ailment in three distinct ways: physically, emotionally, and morally. They eventually became beings of circumstance, expressing their humanity in any way they could. The black population was looked upon as inhumane creatures – like toys, robots, and machines, that were created for the mere pleasure of the whites. That is why they were able to be both exploited physically and abused in ways that belittled their spirits. The raping of the women is one of the most obvious physical abuses demonstrated in the novel, and it is there to authenticate Jacobs’ claim that slavery is a heinous entity. This is made evident, when Linda, the protagonist in the novel, says, “slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women” (66).
Here she refers to the many times that her owner, Dr. Flint, sexually abused and raped her. This passage demonstrates the cruelty of slavery – that it strips women of their purity, one of the important characteristics that is mentioned in The Cult of True Womanhood. In regard to the physical abuse practiced on men, that can be seen when Linda’s cousin, Benjamin, is punished and jailed for defending himself against his master. While in jail, he is beaten, whipped, and treated like a rat. When offered a chance to apologize, he exclaims, “I have worked for him for nothing all of my life, and I am repaid with stripes and imprisonment. Here I will stay till I die” (22). Benjamin was abused physically time and time again.
This physical abuse, most often, leads to emotional obstacles as well. Throughout the novel, there are instances where the slaves wish to be dead. For example, William says, “O, Linda, isn’t it a bad world…I wish I had died when poor father did” (18). And again, Linda says, “death is better than slavery” (54). The theme of death is prevalent in Jacobs’ work, and it clarifies the emotional abuse that the slaves underwent. A significant moment depicting this is in Chapter 3 of the novel, when Linda recounts an incident of a mother whose children were all sold away to different masters. Her entire family is broken, and she is observed roaming the streets in a depressed manner. This cruelty affected the slaves time and time again. Lastly, slavery affects the morality of those infected by it. For the slaves themselves, this is seen when they act unethically due to their circumstances. For example, when Linda has relations with Mr. Sands in order to rid herself of being raped by Dr. Flint. Engaging in sexual intercourse is immoral before marriage, but Linda takes the better of two evils and sleeps with a man via her own free will. Another example is with Linda’s brother, William. He is called by his master and mistress simultaneously and is unsure who the authority in the house is. He describes his choice as impossible, as he would be scolded by his master or whipped by his mistress if he did not attend to them at once. His moral development is stunted, as he has no true role model to look up to, as the figures he must submit to are both evil. All in all, it is evident that slaves are victims of circumstance, and were mercilessly affected by these circumstances more than any other group.
Desmond Tutu once said, “when we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves”. This statement is made indisputable when analyzing the slaveholders in the novel. Although the slaves were affected physically and emotionally, the slaveholders were affected morally and religiously. The whites who abused the slaves, were actually abusing themselves. Not physically, but they were morally destroying their own souls. The most apparent instance of this is endemic is when observing the rape that occurred between slaveholder and slave. Linda states, “there is no shadow of law to protect [the slave] from insult, from violence, or even from death” (28). Linda is calling out the hypocrisy of the white men – who believe in moral law, and in the Bible, yet their principles do not apply to slaves. For example, when Dr. Flint rapes Linda. He is a Christian man, and this offense would be punishable by death if he were to rape a white woman, but that ramification becomes irrelevant once he rapes a woman of a different skin color.
This is not just immoral in terms of forcing oneself onto a woman legally, but also religiously. In the Bible, this act is known as adultery, which is a cardinal sin. By partaking in this dreadful act, these men are maiming their souls. They claim to be Christian God-fearers, but that fear is stripped away when they are involved with their slaves. By committing a cardinal sin, these men ruin their moral compass. This is evident when taking a deeper look at how this action affects not only them and their slaves, but the people around them as well. The wives of these men begin to quietly despise them, or eventually speak up and voice their disappointment. This leads to extreme marital disputes, as seen between Dr. and Mrs. Flint, “angry words frequently passed between her and her husband…. [and] after repeated quarrels… he announced his intention to take his youngest daughter” (37). This action not only ruined his marriage, but also his daughter’s view on him. His daughter now had to deal with separated parents, and with having a father who preaches moral sentiments, but does not abide by them in practice. Evidentially, slavery has allowed the white men to skew away from their ideal selves and engage in various immoral activities that revoke the purity from their lives.
As mentioned, the slaveowners sexual desire for their slaves caused their wives and children emotional distress. This made the fathers rivals to their sons, forced the
daughters to confront the ways of the evil world too early and destroyed the slave girl. Jacobs’ states in her novel, “slavery… makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched (50). This is proven time and time again throughout Linda’s narrative. For example, William recounts, “the brother of Nicolas had pleased himself with making up stories…[he] said [William] should be flogged, and he would do it” (18). When everyone around is acting in a certain manner, the behavior spreads like wildfire. The children in the South had no good role models – everyone around them was whipping slaves and treating them like dirt. Having no other exemplar, the children mimic their environment. The environment taught them to believe that they were superior to other people, so they abided. Both the children and wives affected by the disease of the time, slavery, were changed for the worse. Their humanity was stripped from them right in front of their eyes, and there was nobody around willing to stop it from happening.
As previously mentioned, Desmond Tutu said that “when we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves”. Harriet Jacobs wrote this novel in an attempt to wake up the world – to make them realize the severity of slavery and to make it real for them. Even more so, to make white people understand that as a consequence of their behavior, they were tyrannizing themselves. Her goal was to portray the brutality of slavery, yet appeal for help, and for a change in attitude from the American population; for the realization that blacks were just as human as whites to finally hit. Humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others, and when that quality is lacked, humanity is scarce. Jacobs’ argues that this awful concept of dehumanizing one’s fellow companion can be stopped – unlike many other diseases, there is a cure for this specific illness. Throughout her novel, she depicts people who act opposing to the norm, and indicates that these are the people who will heal their nation.
She portrays Mrs. Bruce, a kind Northern woman who sacrificed much of her own safety to protect Linda. Jacobs’ highlights the compassion that Mrs. Bruce had, and argues that if more people were as compassionate and empathetic, the world would be a better place. Jacobs’ also argues that via motherhood, the slave woman could relate to the white women, and in turn earn their remorse. Linda raises an importance concept in regard to motherhood – she used it to battle slavery, as she allowed her children to be free. She states that she never knew she was a slave until her mother died, and she attempted to mimic that safety onto her children. She did so by allowing them to express themselves as freely as possible – to never put them in a situation as William was, having to choose between a master and a mistress. Under her care, they were able to make their own decisions, no matter how hard that was for her to allow as a mother. By allowing them the expression of freedom, she was teaching them that they are capable of being just like the free-men, and they would be able to prove that one day.
This novel seemingly only aimed to appeal to the Northern women of the time, but in reality, it is a story with a message for a lifetime. Jacobs’ fought not only for slave rights in her novel, but for human rights. Throughout history there have been oppressed people with nowhere to turn for help. Her message is to never be the bystander – never be the North. The North claimed to be anti-slavery and to be of aid to slaves, when in reality they just sat back and watched the African American population experience misery and anguish for years. Jacobs’ was demonstrating that sitting back and watching is just as bad as doing the act. This novel was an appeal to humanity; a cry for change. Slaves were only one population stricken with abuse and neglect, and her book allows for the reader to feel remorse for the slave. But when this sort of negligence strikes in front of your face: will you take a stand and help? Jacobs’ is begging to end the cycle, to be humane, and to view every man equally, no matter their color, social status, or economical state. Man is man and neglecting to treat them as such is a sin to humanity.
- Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Publications, 2001.
- Li, Stephanie. Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
- Vol. 23, University of Nebraska Press, 2019.