American YAWP: Harriet Jacobs

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Within the American Yawp Reader, we find an excerpt from Harriet Jacobs’ own autobiography titled “Harriet Jacobs on Rape and Slavery.” The author, Harriet Jacobs, was a black woman who was born into slavery in North Carolina. While she was enslaved, she was not only a victim of slavery, but also a victim of rape and oppression from her master. “After escaping to New York, Jacobs eventually wrote a narrative of her enslavement under the pseudonym of Linda Brent.” This leads us to believe that Jacobs was writing in approximately 1860, a time period in which there were “nearly four million individual slaves residing in the South… amounting to more than 45 percent of the entire Southern population” However, this was also the beginning of a time period filled with great controversy, as many abolitionist movements began with a goal to end slavery.

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With this in mind, it is important for us, as readers, to remember that during this time period both gender and race had a significant impact on the daily lives of every civilian. Racism was definitely prevalent during this time, with the white race having significant domination over that of the black. This domination led to the formation of pro-slavery ideology which “rested on the notion that slavery provided a sense of order, duty, and legitimacy to the lives of individual slaves, feelings that Africans and African Americans, it was said, could not otherwise experience. Without slavery, many thought, ‘blacks’… would become violent, aimless, and uncontrollable.” This ideology was then further supported by southern missionaries who emphasized “obedience to masters, the biblical basis of racial slavery via the curse of Ham, and the ‘civilizing’ paternalism of slave owners.” By examining this time period, we can also see that “gender inequality did not always fall along the same lines as racial inequality.” Rather, “southern society, especially in the age of cotton, deferred to white men, under whom laws, social norms, and cultural practices were written, dictated, and maintained. White and free women of color [alike] lived in a society dominated, in nearly every aspect, by men.” Therefore, being both black and female, Jacobs essentially would have had the short end of the stick in almost every regard.

With that said, we must also understand that Jacobs wrote her autobiography, out of which this excerpt was taken, after she had escaped from slavery , which means that her perspective could have changed, even if it was slight. Such a change in perspective, however slight it may be, could be due to several different reasons. First of all, there is no way around the fact that emotions are always less heated after the fact. This means that even though Jacobs writes with a clear passion, her emotions are likely to not be as heated as they may have been if she were to have written her autobiography while she was still enslaved. We also must recognize that new experiences can put old experiences into a different light. Therefore, the experiences that Jacobs had while she was escaping slavery and living as a free black woman in the north, could have had an impact on her experiences as an enslaved woman in the south. Here is an easy way to think about it, you are a witness to a car accident. A couple days go by before you are able to go into the police station to give a statement. Between the time of the car accident and your statement, another witness tells you that she saw the blue car slam into the rear end of the black car when in reality the opposite happened. As your memory is not perfect and details often get forgotten, your perspective on the car accident is likely to change.

After careful evaluation of Jacobs’ excerpt, keeping the above in mind, we, as readers, can conclude that Jacobs’ wrote her autobiography, which included this excerpt, to inform people outside of the system of slavery about the true happenings within the institution. The underlying purpose of which is to convey the corruption behind southern society. The end goal being to support the movement to end slavery, using her own experiences to document and support this idea. Jacobs did this by engaging in the debate on whether slavery was in fact a positive good, like many slaveholders believed. This is exemplified by the way Jacobs describes her experiences concerning the sexual assault from her master. Jacobs explains how her master would often “assume the air of a very injured individual, and reproach me for my ingratitude,” showing how the pro-slavery ideology of the south led slaveholders to believe that they were doing the blacks a service, no matter what they did. However, Jacobs refutes this idea by explaining how she would “rather be sold to any body than to lead such a life,” showing the depressing reality slaves faced everyday as they were subjected to do the horrors of their masters bidding. We are also given a glimpse into the reality southern women faced when they married into the institution, with Jacobs explaining that “southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves… they regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation.” However, Jacobs calls others to act on ending slavery as she claims that “though this bad institution deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a fearful extent, it is not altogether extinct.”

To get this point across, Jacobs uses a couple different methods. The first, and in my opinion most powerful, method that Jacobs uses is telling about her personal experiences in a first-person point of view. The excerpt begins with Jacobs telling her readers about her master’s actions and claims that she belongs to his daughter rather than himself. In the same statement, she also alludes to rape; however, she maintains the common practice of the time period to not explicitly talk about it. This is shown in Jacobs’ statement that “He [her master] was too scrupulous to sell me; but he had no scruples whatever about committing a much greater wrong against the helpless young girl placed under his guardianship, as his daughter’s property.” This type of method gives the account more authenticity, as it is more personal. It paints a clear picture for the reader of the master by using his own words against him. Essentially, this helps us, as readers, to see the time period and situation itself from her perspective by putting us into that scene using dialogue that presents us with the abuser. This is especially shown as we are allowed to see the inconsistencies between the master’s actions and words.

Another method that we see Jacobs use to get her point across is to directly address her readers by saying, “readers, I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the plain truth.” The use of this method helps Jacobs direct our attention, allowing us, as readers, to make greater connections with the perspectives she allows us to see through her stories. Essentially, this helps to develop the author-reader relationship, helping us to understand the truth behind her statements. Jacobs also uses this methodical break from the first-person perspective to give us a sort of historical background, telling us about the common practices that continually support slavery as an institution. For example, Jacobs helps readers recognize and understand the importance of how the north supports the slavery process, as “northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den… Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders.” We also learn that slaves were treated “as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation.” In this way, readers are able to focus on and begin to understand the consequences of various aspects of sexual assault, both in the sense of the white perspective and the black perspective, without a personal emotional tie attached.

Jacobs then finishes the excerpt by returning from a generalized perspective to specifics once again, using the statement “I have myself known two southern wives who…” This return back to specifics allows us, as readers, to once again grasp the true horrors of the slavery institution through the use of language like “little niggers.” We are also allowed to see a personal call to action, as Jacobs describes that even “though this bad institution deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a fearful extent, it not altogether extinct… I declare, such things ought not to be tolerated in any decent society.” This return to the first-person perspective is important as it allows readers to once again be brought back into the story, allowing them to feel the desperate call to action that the excerpt ends with. Once again, coming to understand the true horrors of the slavery institution.

As a whole, I believe that Jacobs’ excerpt gives an excellent first-person account of what it was like to be an enslaved black woman working within close relations of their master during the 1800s. However, there are also many other stories and perspectives that could be told, such as the perspective of the southern plantation master, the southern white women, the enslaved black field worker, the enslaved child, the free black man/woman, and so many more. We must also recognize that the story does not end here. Each day was full of misery for those who were enslaved, especially as the black community strived for autonomy. Therefore, stories of resistance, community efforts and recreation, escape and the accompanying “freedom” would also be prevalent during this time, all of which are not included within this except from Jacobs’ autobiography. With this in mind, Jacobs’ excerpt helps me to better understand the corruption of the slavery institution, through the lens of rape and sexual assault. However, it is also important to recognize that there will always be more than one perspective on any given topic and to get the best understanding of the topic, one must look at a situation through various perspectives. 

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American YAWP: Harriet Jacobs. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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