We could have told them a different story. We could have given them a chapter of wrongs and sufferings"
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl
Oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed.
Diane Nash, Civil Rights Activists and Movement Strategist
"'I was born a slave,'" so begins the slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (1861) , ending with Harriet Jacob, a free woman. She would rather not speak of those "'painful years.'" However "'gloomy'" her recollection of those years, she could remember the "'tender memories'" of her grandmother, and muster the courage to tell a story needs telling. After all, it's not her narrative alone, but also the narrative of women, enslaved women, in American history. Hers is the narrative of domestic violence, beginning with the threat of rape and rape against African American girls and women.
Harriet Jacobs is a fugitive slave when she, using the pseudonym Linda Brent, decides to speak out against the enterprise of enslavement that, as she writes, is so dependent upon the use of violence to sustain itself and the political and economic power of the enslavers. Jacobs has once before taken matters into her hands in a struggle to defy a Goliath of a patriarchal system that not only threatens to strip her of her humanity but also to sell her two children "down river." And it's this decision and its consequences that consists of the "incidents", which, unfortunately, relates Jacobs are not necessarily unique to her.
When Jacobs is six years old, her mother dies. It was, she writes, at that time she learns, "'by the talk around her,'" that she is a slave. Born in North Carolina, in the year 1813, she had been accustomed to playing freely about the plantation with "'no thought for the morrow.'" But when her mistress dies six years after her mother, she truly understood what it meant to be "'a human being born to be a chattel." Her mistress' will is read: she, Harriet Jacobs, 12 years old, is to be "bequeathed" to the five-year-old daughter of the deceased mistress's sister.
Jacobs laments how she is not asked her plans for her future. Others make decisions about the lives of others and that's it! The slaveholding class exercises power over a woman's body in order to breed new labor for future profits. Her future lies in the submission of her will to the whims of others.
She recalls "hiring-day," the first of January, a dreaded day for most enslaved African Americans, for it's the day slaveholders buy and sell, trade and exchange human beings, including children. By the 2nd day, those sold are expected to leave with their new masters. It's particularly retching for the enslaved mother. Mothers might stay on, but children are sold off. This is a day of particular sorrow for mothers, Jacobs writes. On the 1st of the year, "'she sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does wish that she and they might die before the day dawns."
Jacobs adds, however others might look on these women, maybe as "'ignorant'" creatures, made so by a "'system that has brutalized her from childhood,'" these women are, nonetheless, "'capable of feeling a mother's agonies.'"
But here we are: "'Dr. Flint, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my mistress, and I was the property of their little daughter.'"
What Dr. Flint knows is business, the running of a plantation. And, above all, profits. In his household, he knows who is under his authority, who is subject to his power, who is property to be used for his pleasure and for his financial gain. "'When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong.'"
Harriet Jacobs is fifteen years old. Dr. Flint is whispering "'foul words'" in my ears. "'I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt.'"
Everything, she writes, that her grandmother had instilled in her was tested by this "'vile monster'" who attempted to "'people'" her young mind "'with unclean images.'" There was no protection from the "'insult,'" "'violence,'" or "'death.'" It was, writes Jacobs, relentless! But refusing to despair, envisions her freedom beyond the "'clutches'" of this master. So the war is on, she writes. One of "'God's most powerless creatures,'" she resolves "'never to be conquered.'"
If the read wants an idea of the ruling class Southern American home during these years of enslavement, here is one, the one in which she lived as a teen with under the authority of adults. Here, I offer "'no imaginary pictures of southern homes.'" Instead, Jacobs writes of the bind/blinders placed on the wife of Dr. Flint, "'a second wife, many years the junior of her husband; the hoary-headed miscreant was enough to try the patience of a wiser and better woman.'"
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