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Harriet Jacobs

There are many who do not like to study history. And everyone knows the reason why. But there is one more thing that could be added to the list, it is the possibility of discovering something unpleasant. In the case of the United States there are many skeletons in the closet so to speak and a simple background check of its history, one hundred years before the turn of the 20th century will reveal that once upon a time Americans owned slaves and they treated them harshly. One of them was Harriet Jacobs, she suffered degradation, humiliation and pain and she ran away.

It would be interesting to know why she left her former life as a slave girl and made a courageous stand to speak out against slavery. This paper will take a closer look at the life of Harriet Jacobs as a former slave and a ran-away slave who decided to become literate so that her voice can be heard across America. This can be done by studying his autobiography written under the pseudonym of Linda Brent. Other sources will be consulted including those that made comments about “The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and others that offer a historical background of the period when slave trade was a common practice. Background

It is unbelievable how a country can change in one hundred years. This can be said of the United States of America in the 19th century because a century earlier slavery was allowed to exist together with its inhumane system of forcing men, women, and even children to work for a slave master. It is difficult to imagine a time when being born in U. S. soil does not guarantee freedom. A woman of color can give birth in America and instead of rejoicing can feel misery because she has just given birth to a future slave, a human being that will be brutalized by the system of slavery and can do nothing but endure until the time of his death.

Even as late as the 19th century and after many decades has passed after America won its independence from Britain, Americans continue to engage in the buying and selling of humans. It boggles the mind to think of an America who vehemently opposed the despotic rule of the British and yet turns around to rule other people with the whip and the sword. A better understanding of the times can be had by reading an eyewitness account of the slave trade. Moreover, this story did not come from the biased view of the slave master but surprisingly from a slave who happens to be a girl living among wolves. Anatomy of the Slave Trade

Slavery was part of the social fabric, the reason why even after breaking free from the tyrannical rule of English monarchy, Americans continue to use humans like beasts of burden. For many it is impossible to maintain vast tracts of land especially in the cotton and corn plantations in the Southern States. Slavery was not only part of the social fabric but it also became a stain that could not be removed. The greatness of the United States as a nation will always be grounded in the knowledge that its ancestors allowed slave traders, slave masters, plantation owners to treat slaves a little higher than animals.

One of the most disturbing things about slavery was how the system treats women and children. It was common knowledge that slave masters did not only consider women as property but they also look at them as objects of sexual lust. One could just imagine the horrors suffered by those who carry the children of their masters within their womb. As mentioned by Jacobs, these slaves will feel utter humiliation and degradation but suffers more from the jealous mistress, the white woman who has been scorned by the unfaithful husband.

It can be argued that the most painful aspect of slavery is with regards to how the system deals with families, especially the children. It is already a cruel fate to work for someone and get treated like a piece of property. But nothing can be more painful for a mother than to realize that she will never be able to love and adore her children because every New Year’s Day there is a chance that all of them will be taken from her and that they will in turn continue the cycle of slavery. As a child Ms. Jacobs was shielded from this awful truth. And she wrote, “… I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandize…

” (Jacobs, 12). Her parents where Mulattos – meaning of mixed-blood and would explain why they were not as dark-skinned as the rest. Her father although a Negro was allowed by his owner to go about his own business and in theory was a free man but in reality imprisoned inside a system that would not allow him to do the most basic things such as the right to take care of his little ones. On every New Year’s Day in the South, it was traditional to hire and buy slaves so that on the second day of January the new hires and the newly purchased men, women, and children can begin their work at their master’s farm.

According to Jacobs this day can be an infamous day for some black mothers who will most probably see their children bought and carted off to a place far from her and she would never see them again. Her words pierces like a barbed instrument when she described the day of dread for some mothers expecting the worst and she said, “She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning … She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts…

(Jacobs, 26). And in one occasion she saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block, she braced for the inevitable, that they will take a few but the mother was devastated when the auctioneers took all her children. Sexuality When Harriet Ann Jacobs turned 15 she never had a clue that whatever she experienced as a child growing up as a slave girl in the South is nothing compared to what will happen to her next. When she reached puberty she realized that there is more to slavery than mere hard work.

She learned that her master can exploit her body, mind, soul and spirit. It is during these early stages of womanhood that she tasted what it is like to be an object of lust. Her master Dr. Flint may appear honorable outside the home but inside his domain he wanted his female slaves to know that he owns their bodies as well as everything else they possess. In one of the commentaries one can read the following, “… Harriet Jacobs finds herself defined not only as property but also as a sexual property.

She is assaulted by the father of her young mistress and in spite of resistance and clear helplessness, accused by the wife of conniving in her own seduction” (Reilly, Kaufman, & Bodino, 166). It was a testament to her fortitude and cunning that she was able to deftly handle her master’s obscene propositions but she paid a dear price emotionally and psychologically. As a Lover One of the most painful experiences of her young life occurred at this stage in early adulthood.

It was extremely difficult for her to understand that as a slave young woman she is forbidden to fall in love with a man and has almost zero chance of getting married. And so she laments, “Why does the slave ever love? ” (Jacobs, 58). Her survival instincts went to high gear when she orchestrated a sexual liaison with a white bachelor; he was a neighbor who happens to be also a lawyer (Berry, 247). This relationship bore her a daughter and a son. As a Mother With regards to having children, Jacobs was dealt a kinder fate when the father intervened to send their daughter to a relative in Brooklyn, New York.

She also was fortunate to be able to leave her son at the care of her grandmother. It was her desire to be with her children that made her long for escape. But instead of totally becoming free from past she chose to work as a nursemaid in New York presumably to get close to her daughter. It was during this time of greater freedom that she began to write about her experiences as a slave girl. Conclusion As mentioned earlier it boggles the mind to think of America as a former haven for slave traders and slave masters.

It almost unthinkable to consider the land of the free conniving with men of ill-repute to sustain a wicked system that allow injustice, oppression, and degradation of fellow human beings. Harriet Jacobs autobiography reveals the dark side of American history. The eyewitness account was powerful enough to force many to consider their shameful acts and beliefs. A slave is considered the property of the owner but a worse fate waits for women slaves who have the potential to suffer as an object of sexual lust and at the same time the emotional torment of being separated from her children.

Harriet Jacobs endured all of these and came out strong and with astonishing moral and mental fortitude willed herself to write an astonishing account of the evils of slavery.

Works Cited

Berry, Faith. From Bondage to Liberation. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. , 2001. Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 Reilly, Kevin, Kaufman, Stephen, & Angela Bodino. Racism: A Global Reader. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc. , 2003.

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