Effects of Gender on Slaves’ Quest for Freedom
Slavery has left its marks in the history of America. Like the many men and women who were unfortunate to be colored and born in the era of slavery, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs suffered ill fates. Lucky enough to be educated and eventually freed, they documented the events in their lives, those they experienced and those they witnessed; to give evidences of the evils brought about by slavery. “Reader it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage.
”1 This paper presents a critical analysis of how being a man or a woman could affected a person’s quest to gain freedom. The analysis is made with major reference to their documented literary works, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave”2 by Frederick Douglass and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”3, written by Harriet Jacobs. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave is a documentation of a slave’s struggles from childhood to adulthood and his eventual triumph to become a freeman.
The events occurred in the early 19th century during the American colonial period when slave trading was at its peak. Frederick Douglass, with practically no knowledge of family and his roots, grew up bearing only the hardships and pains of being a slave. But those who had the chance of being part of Douglass’ life; the slave owners, slaveholders, the perpetrators of the inhuman deeds to his fellow slaves, were documented in his narrative and a part of American history. Douglass was a slap on their faces; they and their descendants forever bear the shame of their evil doings.
In the end, the good triumphed over evil. Douglass outsmarted them and stole the opportunity to earn his most valued education, his passage to freedom and which he used against them to end their reign. If Frederick Douglass was a woman, would he have had the opportunities that few other slaves would have, and gained the sought after education and freedom? Douglass’ fate could have gone either ways. In his documents, Douglass showed that being colored made significant difference more than being either a man or a woman. Being colored made a lot of difference from being a whiteman.
Being a man or a woman did not matter to slaveholders; they all were treated like animals. They were chosen because they fit the needs of the slaveholder. Those that were needed in the plantation, needed to be physically strong. Those who were smart and possessed some skills were used in other businesses. In his narrative, Douglass witnessed the lives of many women, most of whom did not make it to freedom. Like him, they were kept ignorant and deprived of education. They were also tortured and beaten, with their slaveholders unmindful of their physical weakness.
Frederick Douglass suffered the physical and emotional pains. He was smart but he was not exempt from the slashes and beatings of evil slaveholders. It was but normal for the slave to go through these regardless of age or gender. Douglass endured the tortures and the deprivation of a family. He had very little to live with, but he did not have any better times to compare it with. What affected him strongly was the seemingly unending sufferings that he had and witnessing the unending sufferings of his fellow slaves. He was not only physically strong as a man, but he was determined.
What weakened him was his ignorance. At the verge of unending sufferings in the hands of his owners to the point of wanting to take his own life and even his master’s, Douglass was left with little hope that someday he would be free. He was about seven years old when he realized that the path towards his freedom is education. He had long waited for the chance to be educated and it came when his mistress taught him the basics of reading but his master found out about it and immediately put a stop to it. Douglass overheard him saying, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.
A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. ”4 This statement was to Douglass the greatest revelation. The strength of the whiteman’s power is the blackman’s ignorance. Douglass used this conviction to pursue his education with whatever means he had using his wit and adopting unique strategies. He learned to write with the shipyard timber letters and he practiced it with the other children, who he outsmarted through his challenging tactics.
He studied his master’s son’s school workbooks and took every chance to learn and practice with the other kids without them realizing it. He succeeded in educating himself armed with innate smartness and very strong determination. From then on, though he was still physically beaten and driven to hard labor, he became more and more in control. He had the edge because he was able to get information and felt at par with his master. He eventually acquired his freedom. Harriet Jacobs had a deeper and more significant testimony on the effects of gender on her struggles for freedom.
In her narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”5, she talked about love, the heartbreaks and her fight to keep her children and family. She could have gained freedom because she was educated. But she was a woman and was so unfortunate to be born beautiful. This impeded her struggles for freedom. She talked about the many incidents in her life and those that she witnessed. She talked about how she avoided her slaveholder and had to hide in her grandmother’s garret with no light, fresh air and in the same house where her children lived but have not had a chance to know her.
But she struggled and endured all the trials, because she wanted to be free and bring her family with her. Slavery was mean on women. In the era that was very much influenced by Britain’s Queen Victoria, society expected women to be pure, pious and obedient. The role of the woman was to protect her purity, be faithful to her husband, practice obedience and take care of her children. 6 Society was mean on imposing these roles but refused female slaves from practicing it. Even religion allowed the abuse of slavery; typical church sermons would include, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters…
“7 Slavery required women to be obedient more to their masters than to their husbands, than to God. Jacobs may be spared of the physical torments unlike Douglass, but she was for a long time sexually abused and had no way to stop it; she lost her pride as a woman. She wished she was not beautiful; she would have not been so desired by her master. The sexual abuses made by her slave owner were ignored by society because she did not count as a woman; she was a property. Harriet Jacobs had the opportunity to briefly experience a happy home despite having a family of slaves.
As a child, she felt the love and protection as allowed by a generous mistress. Thus she knew how important it was for children to be with their mothers; how valuable it was for the family to be intact. She witnessed the grief of the separation of mothers and her children, “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 …”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. ”8 She felt her grandmother’s grief when her uncles were separated. She experienced it herself when her own children were deprived of her presence, not even had the chance to feel her warmth because she had to hide from her evil master. The torment of bearing children and knowing they will be slaves was so painful that most slave mothers would rather ask God to end their lives. For Jacobs, the deprivation of a woman’s honor and the deprivation of her role as a mother is the bitterest consequence of slavery.
The unique brutalities inflicted on slave women were worse than lashes, beatings and hard labor ever done to slave men. Endnotes 1 Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Child, M. L. ed. Boston, MA. 1860, p 6. Retrieved 26 January 2009 from <http://docsouth. unc. edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs. html> 2 Frederick Douglass.. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Anti-Slavery Office, No. 5 Cornhill Boston MA. 1845. Retrieved 26 January 2009 from <http://www. gutenberg. org/files/23/23-h/23-h. htm> 3 Jacobs, 1860.
4 Douglass, 1845, Ch. VI. 5 Jacobs, 1860. 6 “Women in 1900”. 2008. Retrieved 26 January 2009 from <http://www. historylearningsite. co. uk/women_in_1900. htm> 7 Jacobs, 1860, p. 57. 8 Jacobs, 1860, p. 27. Bibliography Douglass, F. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Anti-Slavery Office, No. 5 Cornhill Boston MA. 1845. Retrieved 26 January 2009 from <http://www. gutenberg. org/files/23/23-h/23-h. htm> Jacobs, H. A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Child, M. L. ed. Boston, MA. 1860. Retrieved 26 January 2009 from <http://docsouth.
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