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Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl Essays

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Essay

No one in today’s society can even come close to the heartache, torment, anguish, and complete misery suffered by women in slavery. Many women endured this agony their entire lives, there only joy being there children and families, who were torn away from them and sold, never to be seen or heard from again. Thesis

In the book, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, Linda Brent tells a spectacular story of her twenty years spent in slavery with her master Dr. Flint, and her jealous Mistress. She speaks of her trials and triumphs as well as the harms done to other slaves. She takes you on the inside of slavery and shows you the Hell on Earth slavery really was. She tells you the love and heartbreak she experienced being an unmarried slave mother. At around the age of twenty or so, Linda escapes and ends up in very small garret only nine foot long and seven foot wide. So small she could not even stand up. She lived in this hole with no light, no fresh air, and barely ever moved for almost seven years. She finally escaped and made it to the North where she and her children lived much happier and most of all they lived free.

Linda Brent said, "Slavery is terrible for men, but is far more terrible for women." She makes a good and true point, for when her life and the life of other slave women is compared to men’s, mentally, slavery takes a much larger toll on the suffering of women. Women are responsible for their children, because the children follow the mother and mothers often fill guilty for bringing children into the cruel world of slavery. As Linda Brent expresses, "I often prayed for death; but now I didn’t want to die, unless my child could die too . . .(Benny) it’s clinging fondness was a mixture of love and pain . . . Sometimes I wished that he (Benny) might die in infancy . . .Death is better than slavery". In the book Linda has mixed feelings about her children because she so dearly loves them. She doesn’t want them to suffer in slavery as she has so she wishes they would die, but she loves them and she doesn’t want to lose them as many slave mothers had. How torn and incapable she must have felt as a slave mother. Linda also speaks of "The Slaves New Year’s Day", this was the time that slaves everywhere were sold and leased. Many mothers were torn from their husbands and their children. Linda speaks of one woman she witnessed, "I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all . . .(The woman screamed) Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?" Linda explains that things like this happen daily, even hourly. This is only a small piece of the torture it was to be a woman in slavery. Linda’s master often made perverted comments to her in which she expressed as to filthy to tell. He began to fill her mind with awful thoughts and words. He often slapped Linda and kicked her around. He was constantly threatening her and her life explaining that he would never sell her and that she would be in their damily as long as he had an heir. When Linda became pregnant with the son of a white man, he became very angry and he constantly reminded her that her baby was to be his property, like a piece of land to be bought. When she had the boy she named Benjamin, he was premature and she became very ill. She refused to let anyone send for a doctor, because the only doctor that could treat her was Dr. Flint. Finally when they thought she would die they sent for her master. He treated her and she refused him as much as possible, but she lived and so did her little Benny, although sometimes she wished he would’ve died. Almost three years later she had a daughter who she called Ellen which angered him even more and when Benny began to run to cling to his mother when he was striking her, Dr. Flint knocked the child all the way across the room nearly killing him.

Linda finally escaped and hid at various places, in a white friends house, where she was made very sick when concealed in a very damp place under the floor. She then remained in a locked storage room upstairs until she found out her children were sold to their father, who never really claimed them, Mr. Sands. He handed the children and their papers over to her grandmother. The woman she was staying with finally thought it best for both of their sakes that she left, because people were becoming suspicious. When she left they had no where to conceal her so, they disguised her and she sat out at the snaky swamp for two days while they were building her a small garret outside her grandmother’s house. At the swamp she claimed the snakes were so plentiful that they had to push them away with a stick and the air was so thick with mosquitos she became ill from all the bites. They finally finished and she hid out in the small garret that was about three feet in height, nine feet in length, and five feet in width. She spoke of the suffocating air, the dampness always about during the rains, and the smothering heat in the summer. She even talked about the rats and mice crawling over her body. She told about watching her two children Ellen and Benny grow up through a small peep hole. Her grandmother would bring her food at night and talk with her. Even as her great aunt was dying she could not leave to tend to her, all she could do was stay in her little smothering space. Soon Dr. Flint began saying that the children belonged to his daughter and the contract of their sale was not legal because she was too young to consent to sale them. So in fear that he would take Ellen, Mr. Sands said he would send her to stay with a cousin, in the North where she would go to school. Linda and her grandmother agreed and Ellen was sent to Boston. The night before Ellen left her mother came out of her hole and into the house to talk with her. She told Ellen, "I am your mother." Ellen replied, "Are you really my mother?" Ellen couldn’t even remember what her own mother looked like. She spent that night with her and they wept on each other and spoke of the things that had happened over the years. Ellen departed the following morning. Finally Linda received work that there was a safe way to get to the North and she left, after spending almost seven years in that tiny space. Linda finally made it to North, safely and prudently, no one suspected a thing. Dr. Flint assumed she’d lived in the North for years, he’d even gone in search of her several times. Although it wasn’t everything she though it would be, she was for the most part free. The people weren’t as nice as she thought they would be, many of them were still extremely prejudice. On her train ride to New York she had to pay to ride in a back car full of the smells of tobacco and whiskey. Alarmingly, when she got there her Ellen had not been living very well.She worn thin clothes and sometimes no shoes. She hadn’t even been sent to school even though there were public schools she could to for free. Ellen was extremely unhappy. She had actually been given to his niece as a handmaid! Although Linda was extremely angry she said nothing for fear of the selling her daughter. She found a job being a nurse to nice family by the name of Bruce and eventually got her daughter back and they later sent her son to be with her also. Dr. Flint continued to come to the North and search for her, but she had many friends who concealed her. Not but a few years after she’d stayed in the North did they pass the Fugitive Slave Law enacted in September 1850 it made it easy to legally seize and enslave and black man or woman at large. All they had to do was get the person, go before the commissioner, swear to the ownership of him or her and get a certificate of arrest. The commissioner received ten dollars for giving the certificate and five for denying it. The black man or woman accused of being a fugitive slave had no right to a trial and jury. Dr. Flint’s daughter was not long after married to a man by the name of Dodge and sent a letter to Linda to come home that they might welcome her with "open arms". Soon after Dr. Flint died, and so did her dear grandmother who she wished to go to and help as much as she’d helped her, but she could not. Linda began reading the papers everyday to see the new people checked into town and look for her mistress, Mrs. Dodge, whom she’d heard had been very low of funds and needed Linda simply to get some money. Sure enough she showed up, Linda ran with the baby she nursed to California to stay with her brother. Benny was learning a trade with her brother and Ellen was in boarding school. At last her dear friend Mrs. Bruce bought her for three-hundred dollars. The Dodge’s were so certain they’d never find her and so low on finances that they probably would have sold her for anything. At last Linda and her children were free. Never to become captured by the Fugitive Slave Law. Never to have to look over their shoulder for someone that might know them and turn them in. What a relief that must have been after living such a long life as a fugitive slave and poor slave mother.

As you could see Ms. Linda Brent was a very strong woman who’s love for her children and determination for them not to live the horrible slave life she had made her and her children free. Free to what though? Freedom just to say that they weren’t a piece of property. Freedom to build and live in their own home and raise a family without fear that any person might take that happiness away at any moment.

Word Count: 1795

In "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl", Harriet Jacobs writes, "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women" (64). Jacobs' work presents the evils of slavery as being worse in a woman's case due to the tenets of gender identity. Jacobs elucidates the disparity between societal dictates of what the proper roles were for Nineteenth century women and the manner that slavery prevented a woman from fulfilling these roles. The book illustrates the double standard of for white women versus black women. Harriet Jacobs serves as an example of the female slave's desire to maintain the prescribed virtues but how her circumstances often prevented her from practicing. Expectations of the women of the era, as stated in class discussions, resided in four arenas: piety, purity, domesticity and obedience. The conditions that the female slave lived in were opposed to the standards and virtues set by society. It resulted in the female slave being refused what was considered the identity of womanhood. It was another manner in which slavery attempted to eradicate the slaves' value of themselves. Jacobs continually struggled to maintain these female virtues. Her belief in the ideas of piety, purity, domesticity and is highlighted in her admiration of one rare, benevolent mistress, The young lady was very pious... She taught her slaves to lead pure lives... The eldest daughter of the slave mother was promised in marriage to a free man; and the day before the wedding this good mistress emancipated her, in order that her marriage might have the sanction of law. (43) Piety was one of the subscribed to virtues. However, in order for one to be pious and obtain religious insight, it would be necessary to read the Bible. This would be an obstacle for the overwhelming majority of slave women as illiteracy was prevalent, Jacobs wrote, . ".. it was contrary to the law; and that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read" (61). As Jacobs knew how to read and write, illiteracy was not an impediment. Yet, slaves were forbidden to meet in their own churches, another catch for the female slave attempting to keep the virtue of piety. Jacobs writes of the difficulties the slaves had in obtaining religious instruction after the Nat Turner insurrection, "The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church... Their request was denied" (57). A slave would only be allowed to practice the religion of their masters, . ".. the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters" (57). A typical sermon would consist of "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters... " (57), this type of sermon had less to do with a woman's piety than a slave's obedience. Nevertheless, Jacobs exhibits piety in many fashions, despite these disadvantages. When services begin in the home of a free colored man, Jacobs was invited to attend as she could read, regardless of the risk to herself "Sunday evening came and, trusting to the cover of night, I ventured out" (57). Jacobs practiced piety as the dictates of the period demanded at a great risk to her safety. She taught a man to read the bible and begs of missionaries to recognize the need to instruct slaves in biblical studies. (61). Jacobs did not only speak of piety, but through these examples, but put it into action and could fulfill this one aspect of the female gender identity. The practice of purity was the virtue most denied to a woman in slavery. Men of society constructed the conventions, established the importance of purity in women. Purity was praised and rewarded in free white women and stolen from black slave women. The system worked against protection of slave women from sexual abuse by their masters. Sexual abuse of slave was not viewed as a criminal offense because she did not count as a woman. Rather, she was property of the owner, who could dispose of her body and he saw fit. Jacobs' master explicitly stated, "He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things" (26). Sexual harassment was taken as a matter of course, "I now entered my fifteenth year, - a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl" (26). Sadly, sexual abuse was accepted almost as a rite of passage for a female slave, that at a certain age, her purity would be stolen. A female slave could not expect to find safe harbor even from the other woman of the house, "The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and outrage" (26). As opposed to acting on behalf of the female slaves, the mistress saw the slave as the problem. Without any assistance, Jacobs consistently attempted to thwart her master's sexual attempts in order retain her purity. Importance of this purity is highlighted in the passage describing her rebellion to build a separate house where he could be alone with her, I vowed before my make that I would never enter it. I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on from day to day, through such a living death. (46). Jacobs viewed the preservation of purity as passionately as any woman but slavery had placed her in circumstances that left her its certain loss. Enslaved women could not even maintain purity if subscribing to the idea of sexual relations occurring within a marriage, as it was typically denied by law or the owner. Jacobs had fallen in love with a free black man We became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl's first love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such... 33) Jacobs is denied marriage to her lover by her owner, "Never let me hear that fellow's name mentioned again. If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will cowhide you both... I'll teach you a lesson about marriage free niggers! " (35-36). However, Jacobs will not allow it to totally destroy her sense of self as a woman. While she has suffered abuse and harassment and the hands of Dr. Flint, Jacobs remained determined that Flint would not "succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet,"(46). As she is not permitted purity, Jacobs decided to take a white lover. If she were to be forced to give up her purity it would be at least . ".. to a man who is not married... It seems less degrading to give one's self, that to submit to compulsion" (47). The quotes show Jacobs' recognition of the sanctity of marriage has well certain personal standards. Jacobs possesses a sense of self, she feels that she deserves to choose her own lover. Regarding her lover she wrote, There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you except that which he gains by kindness... The wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy (47). Jacobs used her own sexuality as a defense, since keeping her physical purity, a right to other women, had been denied to her. By choosing an unattached man, Jacobs explains that does retain a certain moral purity, as much as could be allowed in her situation The denial of a legal marriage and own a home with him ruled out the possibility for domesticity virtue to be achieved. The women in slavery were not married and living with their own husband and children. The master often used the female slave for breeding, the children taken from the mother and sold. Jacobs poignantly narrates this destruction of family through New Year's Day auction of slaves, On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. ... I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me? " I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence. (17) How could the female slave possibly exhibit domesticity in a system where such constructs were not permitted to her? Women in bondage lived in a society where their offspring were not their own, as children . ".. follow the condition of the mother... " (37), they were but the property of the master to be taken and sold at his discretion. While domesticity was highly regarded for the white women, this was not applicable to a black slave "my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties... (33). Yet, domesticity was one of the values that Jacobs most strove to maintain. She had the experience of a traditional family earlier in life speaking of how she had . ".. lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise... " (9). Other black women apparently esteemed domesticity, as Aunt Marthy stated Ah, my child, .... Stand by your own children, and suffer with them till death. Nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children; and if you leave them, you will never have a happy moment" (75). Family and the attempt to preserve some sort of domestic was supreme. Jacobs viewed her refuge in the garret as a means to keep some semblance of domesticity and family life by being near her children. She suffered in seclusion for seven years, residing in the garret that . ".. was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high... " (91). Jacobs did in the name of family, in yearning for domesticity, for through all her discomfiture she was able to take solace and even joy in at least being able to be near her children, "But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children" (92). Jacobs' pains illustrate how strong of a desire for the domestic family life that was denied. Even after obtaining freedom for her children and herself, she writes, "The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own" (156). A traditional family life remained Jacobs' most desiderate dream which she partially obtained in her freedom, but not in the same manner that a white woman could enjoy. The one aspect of the ideal Nineteenth century female that most slave women were able to achieve was that of obedience. It was not the same obedience that the free woman was expected to subscribe to - it was not obedience to her husband, God or family, but slave woman was expected full, unquestioning obedience to her master. This obedience was achieved by physical force and the slaves' knowledge that they were nothing more than property. Obedience was the dictate Jacobs rebelled against. After the refusal of her request for marriage Jacobs recognizes her insolence to her master, "I know I have been disrespectful, sir... ut you drove me to it... " (35). Jacobs could not acquiesce when such an action would be the complete destruction of her body and soul. The institution of slavery was complete subservience and annihilation of a female slave as an individual being. To practice that kind of obedience, to be submissive, would be certain death to Jacobs, whether in the physical or spiritual sense. Jacobs' "disobedience" occurred when her piety, purity and domesticity where threatened. Instead, Jacobs exhorted obedience to the precept of morality. Moreover, she adhered to obedience of what was considered moral and just for white women. The prescribed of ideas of what construed womanhood in the 1800s surrounded a purity, piety, domesticity and obedience. Those were most of the characteristics that were not permitted for the female slave to practice or acquire. Examining the experiences of Harriet Jacobs in "Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl", one witnesses that while Jacobs desired to practice the dictates of her time slavery forced her to often do otherwise

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