Slave Narrative In The Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl

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In the world of literature, slavery has been brought to the spotlight through what are known as slave narratives. Slave narratives deliver eyewitness explanations as well as record the distinctive slave exposure; reading these narratives aids in helping people understand what slaves had to face. But, male slave narratives have gotten the most attention. The talk of slave narratives is usually focused around the memoir of Frederick Douglass because it is read the most out of all the slave narratives. “The abjection of slavery took an added dimension when women were concerned” (Diouf). Female slave narratives gave a glimpse of the slave experience from a female standpoint, especially into subject matters like maternity, sexual harassment and abuse.

Majority of slaves, whether male or female, faced bigotry, discernment, and ferocity during their time in captivity. However, females often experienced slavery in a different way compared to males although the general line of most slave narratives is the pursuit towards freedom. “Whilst violence against slaves was common regardless of gender, sexualized violence was almost strictly restrained to female slaves” (Ware). Also, according to Ware, “Significant differences can be found in their focus of notion, how exactly the story is told, and their opinions on content, such as the family unit and as such, differences in lifetime experiences led to differences in subject matter and style.” Female slaves wrote about how their roles were to be compliant and domestic, specifically, a maternal home life, as well as marriage, motherhood, sexual abuse and oppression. Most female slaves were in fact mothers, who had to not only provide but also unfortunately witness their children being sold to different slaveowners. “Enslaved parents had an unusually heavy responsibility, for they not only had to survive, but they also had to ensure that their children survived under conditions that were tantamount to perpetual war between slaveholders fighting to control their chattel while the bond servants were struggling to free themselves from the control of others” (King). With that said, they had a higher risk of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. Even though a few male slaves suffered from sexual abuse – for example Douglass writes about how the physiological outcome was not the same. Douglass states his experience of assault and indications a case of female sexual exploitation, but only touches on the “physical” aspect.

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In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Ann Jacobs shared her experience. Jacobs was the first African American woman to compose a slave narrative in the United States. Her narrative is focused on describing the fights women tackled under slavery; mainly engaging to women. Jacobs wrote her biography under the alias Linda Brent. She talks about Brent’s attempts to get away from her slave master Dr. Flint, who sexually harassing her and explains it all in excessive detail. An Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl is a narrative of her life as a slave and the journey to freedom for herself as well as her kids. Linda Brent was born in 1813 in North Carolina. Until the age of about six, she had a content childhood. When Brent is sold into slavery she has to live with Dr. Flint who whips, harasses and threatens to rape her. He tries to force her against her own will into a sexual relationship with him. Stimulated by depression, Brent jumps into a relationship with Mr. Sands as an escape from Flint’s assault.

They have two children together but this doesn’t hold back Flint though and with that said, Brent has no choice but to depart without the children. Brent escapes to the North in 1842 where she comes together with her children. At the age of six, Brent’s mother passes away. Up until that moment, she had never thought of herself as a slave (Jacobs 4). As a result, Brent had to live with Ruth Nash who was said to be her mother’s mistress. She teaches Brent how to sew, read and write. This was considered notable, because many slaves were not allowed to read or write, as it was seen as a form of freedom. “Most slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. Their owners were afraid that they would pass messages to slaves on other plantations and start a revolt” (Pavao).

In her narrative, Jacobs wrote: “While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory” (Jacobs 6). This was a rare sight coming from a slave owner, but Jacobs took the opportunity as a blessing because only a few slaves were taught to read and write. Unfortunately, Nash passes away six years later and her niece Emily Flint becomes Brent’s new master. Compared to her previous master, Dr. Flint is harsh, spiteful, and thoughtless: “The cook never sent a dinner to his table without fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to his liking, he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her to eat every mouthful of it in his presence, […] cramming it down her throat till she choked” (Jacobs 8). Flint takes advantage in having higher power forcing his servants against their will. At this point, Brent is aware that she won’t come across another master like Nash. The wife of Brent’s master is unkind and bitter and often takes advantage of her supremacy. For instance, her spitting in all the pans to prevent the cook and the other slaves from eating the leftovers was completely uncalled for. The first time Brent is chastised happens when Mrs. Flint scolds Brent to never wear her new shoes again and then sends her on an errand, barefoot, in the snow (Jacobs 12). Slave-holders were compelled by the longing for fortune and control; owning slaves gave them capital and character. “But gaining power can make a person acquisitive” (Little). In depicting the master-slave affiliation, Jacobs shows “the desensitizing consequence of slavery on the slave and master, the master due to his power to dominate and the slave being dominated. On her fifteenth birthday, Flint begins to use a series of flamboyant words with Brent of which stripped her of her innocence. “He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him” (Jacobs 9). Although she is still young, Brent begins to understand his intentions, but being as vulnerable as she was, she doesn’t put her foot down, as she fears Flint and the possible consequences: “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?” (Jacobs 9). Flint would also give notes to Brent, even when she could not read yet. “Before long, notes were often slipped into my hand. I would return them, saying, 'I can't read them, sir.' 'Can't you?' he replied; 'then I must read them to you.” (Jacobs 12). As time progresses, Mrs. Flint starts getting a feeling that something is going on between Mr. Flint and Brent, which fuels up the jealousy. Mrs. Flint has a series of arguments with her husband regarding Brent because she feels as though Brent isn’t being punished as she should be. After Mrs. Flint forces Brent to tell her the truth about Flint’s aims, Brent now fears Mrs. Flint. “I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I was placed” (Jacobs 13). Besides the endless acts of sexual abuse, slave women also had to deal with envious mistresses. Due to Flint’s foul words and outbursts of his mistress, Jacobs becomes “prematurely knowing in evil things and soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall” (Jacobs 10).

Slave narratives were easily considered the key literary form in early African-American literature. Generally, slave narratives depict slave’s time in bondage, but the stories themselves differ. There are quite a few differences between the eye witness versions of males and females. As a male slave, Frederick Douglass also wrote about women and slavery but the best way to interpret female slavery is to look at it from a female standpoint. The main difference was that female slaves highlighted the physiological outcome that this abuse had, instead of just talking about how and why they were reprimanded. Female slave narratives were partially written to record the persecution of African-American women as slaves. “Studies have shown that women were more likely to be subjected to excessive physical abuse than men. They were more vulnerable, less likely to respond with force” (Diouf). So, female slaves’ imageries of such violence shed a light on the exploitations of slavery. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest” (Diouf).   

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