Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl

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.

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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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Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl. (2017, Sep 19). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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