Harriet Jacobs


Harriet Jacobs Essay, Research Paper

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written to appeal to an audience of free white women and to involve them in the antislavery struggle. At a more personal level, it was written to vindicate Harriet Jacobs, both to reveal her history and to account for it in a public setting.

Jacobs’s narrative signals several significant departures from the literary and social conventions of the slave narrative, a genre that enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. Slave narratives written by men characteristically focused on the heroic struggles of individuals, lone figures struggling against the injustices of the slave system. Issues of family and community were often subsumed within these individual struggles. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by contrast, located Harriet Jacobs’s struggle for freedom within an intricate network of family, community, and social relationships. Indeed, her struggle for freedom is inextricable from her desire for freedom for her two children.

The actual and symbolic geography of the slave narrative moved inexorably from the South to the North. The southern landscape was depicted in terms of imprisonment, confinement, and slavery, while the North was inevitably identified with freedom. Once the narrator achieved freedom and arrived safely in the North, the narrative ended, sometimes very abruptly. The North was often depicted in glowing rhetorical terms, and one important social/literary convention was that one did not dwell too harshly on the less-than-hospitable conditions that fugitive slaves often encountered. One did not, after all, want to unnecessarily offend the sensibilities of one’s hosts, patrons, and readers. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, however, Jacobs was very outspoken about the racism she encountered in New York City and the North.

Finally, Jacobs’s narrative is distinguished by its sharp, specific focus on the sexual exploitation of slave women. Other narrators had touched on this issue to be sure, but none had explored it with the depth and passion of Jacobs. In this regard, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a political effort designed specifically to help ameliorate the condition of black women in slavery. To achieve this end, Jacobs had to break deliberately with the genteel Victorian literary and social conventions that ruled certain subjects, particularly sex and sexuality, out of bounds. Jacobs knew that, judged by the standards of the cult of true womanhood, her sexual history could leave her open to charges of immorality. She chose to confront these issues head-on and, in doing so, pushed her narrative well beyond the conventions of mainstream literary discourse. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl not only moved the slave narrative in a new and striking direction; it also marked the emergence of a bold and determined voice in women’s writing on the eve of the Civil War.

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