Copyright Kim Wells, 1999
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"WRITTEN BY HERSELF:"
HARRIET JACOBS AND THE FAILURE OF IDEOLOGIES

     Terry Eagleton, in this study on ideology, argues that:

What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology. [. . . ] It is much harder to grasp how they may come to do so in the name of something as apparently abstract as ideas. Yet ideas are what men and women live by, and will occasionally die for. (Eagleton np)

The world is full of ideologies that sound great: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need;" one voice, one vote; all men are created equal are just a few. All of these bumper-stickeresque phrases could describe a particular ideology; that "ideals" meant to improve human life have become sound-bite clichés is particularly troubling. The problem, though, with ideologies is that they deal with the "ideal." In practice, no matter what their altruistic intent, they often fall short of their intended goals because our imperfect human nature invariably gets in the way. People get greedy for power, or money, or sex, or whatever else they think their ideas may be able to get them. Frequently, the ideologies that mean well, that sound good "on paper," fail those who need them the most: the powerless. When an ideology becomes an established way of doing things it crystallizes into "rule" and tends to forget many of the people it is supposed to be helping, or protecting.

     For example, in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs discusses the failure of a number of ideologies to truly aid her struggle for freedom, and her dream of family. The ideologies that Jacobs is well aware of struggling under are the false paternalism of the "peculiar institution" of slavery, the cult of true womanhood/domesticity, and finally, abolitionism.

     If, as it was assumed in the slave-owning South, the continued well-being of the system depends upon the health and happiness of the slave, then what can really be wrong with a system that protects those interests as though he/she were a member of the owners' own family? Slavery's advocates argued that the slave was better off in the U.S., as a slave, than he/she was in "uncivilized" Africa. They argued that the slave was given food, shelter, the teachings of Christ, and a new family of benevolent slave owners; all of these gifts were presided over by the new "father" who must clearly have the best, most profitable interests of his little "family" at heart. This is an ideology that many people, in both the South and North, held during slavery's reign. In fact, I have even heard the argument made today that slaves were generally better "taken care of" than many immigrants from other countries who were used up by capitalistic bosses who paid them, but virtually owned them through debt and dependence. It is an idea that many would like to believe, I think, because the true inhumanity and cruelty of slavery is hard to stomach.

     Jacobs, though, knows what is hidden under the mask of the ideology of the paternal institution, "concealed like those [secrets] of the Inquisition" (35). She condemns slavery by exposing the truth of self-interest behind the Master's so-called benevolence, and she argues that this truth corrupts the entire system. In Chapter Nine, "Sketches of Neighboring Slaveholders," she details, among other things, the effects of slavery upon the actual "blood" families of the slave owner. She tells her readers that "no pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery" on the slave and on family members like the sons who are "vitiated, even while boys, by the unclean influences every where around them" (51). Jacobs illustrates that the slave owners' daughters, too, far from being the protected angel in the parlor, become sexually "curious" and "excited" from hearing the details of the thrills the slave quarters has to offer and tells us that this curiosity can lead, at worst, to the murder of a mixed-race child (51). Jacobs argues, throughout this chapter and others, that "slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched" (52). For details on the wives' corruption, Jacobs strikes to the heart of what wives are supposed to be as domestic true women by showing us that Mrs. Flint, far from being a goddess in the kitchen, spits in leftover food to "prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fair with the remains" (12). She also tells us of the neglect a slave mother must give her own children while lying on a pallet on the floor to help Mrs. Flint's, should they need something in the night (143). By providing details such as the cruelty of Mrs. Flint, her husband, and other slave owners, Jacobs proves that the so-called benevolent family life of the paternal institution cannot exist because the slave "family" is a sick parody of relationships, and it corrupts everyone involved in it. Rather than protect the powerless slave as a well-loved member of the family, the ideology of the "peculiar institution" causes no one to be safe, from father to mixed-race grandchild. In Jacobs' narrative, the sins of the father are truly visited upon all his "children."

     Another important way that Jacobs' narrative reveals the failings of slavery's ideology is in her specific focus on the special problems that the female slave has-- problems that are literally built in and vital to the system of slavery in the United States. Jacobs introduces her own individual problems as common to many young slave women, saying "slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own" (77). Jacobs, and her editor Lydia Maria Child, warn readers of Incidents that these mortifications are "indelicate"(4) but Jacobs seeks to shock her intended audience of mostly female readers into outrage over the wrongs done slave women; she thus uses the ideology of true womanhood, which has otherwise little to offer her, to her advantage by showing how it fails to apply to both slave woman and slave-owning women. In addition to general tales of injustices wrought upon slaves, and before describing her own fall into "immorality," Jacobs concentrates specifically on other slave women who are forced into situations of sexual bondage by their white masters, thus establishing sexual immorality as a common event in the lives of women in the South, both slave and free.

     Deborah Gray White, in her survey Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, (1985) tells us that "once slaveowners realized that the reproductive function of the female slave could yield a profit, the manipulation of procreative sexual relations became an integral part of sexual exploitation of female slaves" (68). White tells us that slave owners provided incentives such as decreased work to pregnant and nursing women, but they often also included insuring a slave's sexuality by personally impregnating her and then selling her children (99). Of course, White also points out that slave women's having children is part of what keeps fewer slave women from running away from slavery; she knows that it is nearly impossible to escape while carrying a child and that few slave women will consider leaving them behind (71). Jacobs herself is tied to the nearly unbearable situation of living in a crawlspace for seven years because "for the hope of serving my children, [. . .] for their sakes, I was willing to bear on" (Jacobs 127). Her grandmother also uses the children to keep Jacobs nearby, saying "nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children; and if you leave them, you will never have a happy moment" (91). The ideas of domestic bliss, rather than aiding her in acquiring the happiness of her own family, thus hold Jacobs in bondage for longer than truly necessary and is used as a justification for continued acceptance of slavery's yoke.

     Surprisingly, many historians have washed over this aspect of slavery's history. Of the four "models" of slavery that have prevailed in discussion of the history, some of them seem particularly unconcerned with the sexual abuses of slavery, claiming that, since there was no written evidence of organized efforts to "breed" slaves, the practice did not exist, contrary to its appearance in dozens of personal slave narratives where it is accepted as a natural part of the slave's own personal life (Morgan 135).(1) Surely it is obvious that the practice of slave "breeding," was necessary for the continued existence of slavery since the U.S. could no longer get slaves from outside of the country far before the Emancipation Proclamation was a gleam in anyone's eye. It must also be obvious that a system that treats women like breeding cattle would be ripe for abuse. As a result of encouraging slave promiscuity, which would increase the slave owners' property every time a child was born, white slave owners saw slave women as "a cut above a whore" (Morgan 136). It is a small step from this view of a woman as a whore to the justification of turning her into one, for the sake of your own pleasure. The view of slave women as whores, who enjoyed their captivity and liked being mistress to their master, appears in Jacobs' own narrative when Dr. Flint, after hearing of Jacobs' second pregnancy, shaves her head. He "cut every hair close to [her] head, storming and swearing all the time" (77). When we read Isaiah, 3:24, which is part of a protest against the wanton and whorish ways of the daughters of Israel, and its proclamation that repentance must include the shaving of the head, we can see that the white slave owner even justifies his own actions through Biblical precedence, making him all the more paternalistic, in his eyes and in the eyes of his community. Even while he forgets his own part in making the slave a whore, he is able to punish her, and therefore feel correctively virtuous and fatherly.

     In reality, and Jacobs is quite aware that what the slave owner needed was for the slave woman to believe in her own whoredom because it was most profitable to him, in the long run, that slave women reproduce often. Jacobs tells us that Dr. Flint will not believe her protestations of unwillingness, and gloats when her pregnancy reveals her as no longer chaste (Jacobs 81). We find that Flint was not the exception to the rule, that southern slave owners "were convinced that slave women were lewd and lascivious, that they invited sexual overtures from white men, and that any resistance they displayed was mere feigning" (White 30). By way of explaining her reasoning (other than her wish to stay chaste) for rejecting Dr. Flint's sexual insinuations, Jacobs recounts an incident where a slave woman, her husband, and the woman's light-skinned child were sold by Dr. Flint, who "'promised to treat [her] well.' To which he replied 'You have let your tongue run too far, damn you.'"Jacobs concludes this scene, saying that "She had forgotten that it was a crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child" (13). Jacobs, though, will not forget this unspoken rule; she is only too aware of the consequences for female slave sexuality in a system where the child "follows the condition of the mother" (42). She is also aware that fatherhood does not soften the Master's heart towards the mother or child and that the child is likely to be sold away from her as soon as it is born because of the embarrassment some Masters feel in having their bastard children on their own property.

     Many critics have noticed Jacobs' emphasis on the particularly sexual aspects of her struggles; Gabrielle Foreman argues that "Jacobs encodes her descriptions of varied types and agents of sexual abuse to preserve her own authority as she simultaneously evokes sympathy from her readers" (79) and Deborah Garfield suggests that "allowing the trope of the ear and a despoiling speech to substitute for the sexual act, [Jacobs] thus honor[s] her audience's inviolability" (109). These critics assume that it is Jacobs' sexuality that is most troubling to her audience; however, what is truly shocking, and what Jacobs uses to her advantage, is he failure of their ideology to protect other women-- might such an imperfect system fail them, as well? Jacobs plays with this knowledge frequently, telling her readers to imagine themselves in her place. If she can get them to do so, she can possibly make them realize the flaws and hypocrisy of their own condition. It is through just her audience's sense of "inviolability," part of their assumed moral codes, that Jacobs illustrates the failure of yet another ideology to protect her. She shows us how the standards of the white, middle class women abolitionists who were crusading for her "freedom" as part of their duties to "true womanhood" invariably fall short in practice.

     The domestic cult of true womanhood stressed and celebrated woman's intrinsically assumed higher morality, the display of which woman was supposed to use to influence men and the "unfortunate." The cult of true womanhood lies in woman's "inherent" domestic skills expressed through reigning over the home and all its interior issues of child-rearing and housekeeping. This domestic nature is part of the ideology that cannot apply to Jacobs as a slave as anything other than a trap, and thus, its universality is a lie. Flint's plan to set Jacobs up in a little "cottage," where she will only do light work like sewing is actually a trap to keep Jacobs out of the public eye, where the potential for neighborly condemnation of Flint's actions keeps him from going too far. Rather than being a protective, highly moral place, the little home/cottage is, for Jacobs, a secretive means to hide his own sin. Jacobs recognizes this trap for what it is and sidesteps it by entering a relationship with another white man, but at the same time, she knows that her step will be condemned, as well, by the cult of true womanhood and domesticity.

     Jacobs proclaims "I know I did wrong" when she entered into her relationship with her children's father, but she says "in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that slave women ought not to be judged by the same standards as others" (56). Jacobs ends her narrative with a similar message, telling her readers, who are as well-versed as she is in the conventions of domesticity, that her book ends "not in the usual way, with marriage" but with unmarried freedom (201). That her freedom is not complete is evident when she tells us that her dreams are not complete; she still does not have "a home of [her] own" and thus, she lacks true domestic bliss. With these statements, Jacobs illustrates her understanding of the cult of true womanhood's standards but condemns those standards in their failure to truly protect a slave woman as they protect a white woman and that true womanhood is impossible for the slave woman to obtain, even in the abolitionist North.

     Still, despite the strength and focus of the narrative on sexuality, which is an incredibly important part of the women's slant on slavery that Jacobs offers us, it is the condemnation of the flawed ideology of Abolitionism and the Northern Free States' duality that is the narrative's truest and strongest aspect and it is here that her true aim in writing "her story" appears. Jacobs does not use her sexuality to shock her readers into fighting for abolition, as many critics have claimed, rather, the conventions of the narrative are there simply to get her book read so that it might quietly criticize, finally, the great injustices still being perpetuated upon African-Americans. This is a previously unremarked upon aspect of the narrative; most people read the peripheral comments that Jacobs makes concerning the racism in her life in "freedom" as secondary to her struggles to get out of captivity. But the sexual aspect of her novel is only part of the story; the other is Jacobs' awareness that the battle for true freedom is far from over. Jean Fagan Yellin points out in her introduction, "as the nation moved toward civil war, yet another slave narrative seemed of minor importance" (xxiv) but why does Jacobs still fight to publish her story? It is because she feels a need to continue her battle against oppression, a need for her own Civil Rights, a desire in which she is about 100 years earlier than most of the country. Jacobs illustrates her sexual struggles as things of the past which are now over, but she tells us of current experiences in so-called "Free-States" which enrage her and make her feel less than human, in order to tell us that abolitionism as an ideology also fails those whom it strives to protect.

     The first of these incidents that show abolition's failure to create true freedom for slaves comes on one of Jacobs' earliest days out of the South. When she is planning to go to New York, and tries to purchase first class tickets, she finds that "they don't allow colored people to go in the first-class cars" no matter how much money those colored people offer (162). Jacobs comments "This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but the were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery" (162). She says, on the next page, "since that time there has been some improvement in these matters" but this comment seems tacked on to the end of the paragraph as a conciliatory gesture, as though Jacobs is aware that too boldly pointing out the hypocrisy of the North, (who at the time her narrative is published has proclaimed itself the liberator of the slaves,) will lose her audience's attention.

     The next description of the way that the North "apes" the slave states is when Mrs. Hobbs, with whom Jacobs' daughter Ellen lives, tells Jacobs "coolly" that Ellen was "given" to her and that since she will be a "nice waiting maid for her when she grows up" she is therefore, not worthy of educating (166). Jacobs, at this time, renews her efforts to procure her own freedom from Dr. Flint so that she can take care of her own children. She is rightfully distrustful of those in the North who claim to be more moral than those in the South. She details her fears that the North is not much better than the South again in the chapter "Prejudice against Color." Despite living in a "free" state and having a job with a good family, she is told "Get up! You know you are not allowed to sit here" when she tries to sit with her employers in the dining room table, although other white nurses and servants are not challenged (175). Again and again the people of the north restrict Jacobs to private cars, or makes her hide in the "Jim Crow car." She ends this chapter saying "I was resolved to stand up for my rights [and when I did this] they concluded to treat me well. Let every colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be trampled under every foot by our oppressors" (177). This, plus her refusal to leave the dining room when told to do so, makes her an example of a very early kind of civil resister, a precursor to Rosa Parks.

     Jacobs also heavily criticizes the North for participating in the Fugitive Slave Law, saying "what cared the legislators of the 'dominant race' for the blood they were crushing out of trampled hearts" (191) and declares that "I was, in fact, a slave in New York, as subject to slave laws as I had been in a Slave State. Strange incongruity in a State called free!"(193). These last incidents are the ones that have taken place, not in the life of a slave girl, but in the life of a woman in a "Free State" who knows she should be given the same privileges as her white associates, but also knows that this rarely happens in the U.S.

     Jacobs, at the start of the civil war, pointedly predicts the next one hundred years of repression that will plague African-Americans in the United States, making her somewhat of a prophet. She sees that, despite abolitionists rhetoric that ending slavery will release them from bondage, African-America people will not be truly free until they control their own destinies and are allowed the same rights and privileges as white people. Hidden within a "titillating" sexual captivity narrative is a condemnation of the state of race relations from Jacobs' own time that reaches far forward into the future. This is a point of Jacobs' autobiography that it is equally important to note, and one that makes her book crucial to an understanding of race relations before and after emancipation. The "girl" has become a woman, but the slave is not truly free; ideology has again failed her in the actual practices of human beings.

Works Cited

Eaglet, Terry. Ideology. New York: Longan. 1994.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. "Manifest in Signs: The Politics of Sex and Representation in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays. E's, Garfield, Deborah M. and Raffia Zaar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. 76-99.

Garfield, Deborah M. "Earliness: Female Abolitionism, Sexuality, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays. E's, Garfield, Deborah M and Raffia Zaar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. 100-130.

Garfield, Deborah M. and Raffia Zaar. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Ed. Lydia Maria Child. Boston: 1861. Rpt. Ed, Jean Dagan Yelling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1987.

Morgan, James C. Slavery in the United States: Four Views. Jefferson: McFarlane & Company. 1985.

White, Deborah Gray. Aren't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: WW Norton & Co. 1985.

Works Consulted

Finkelman, Paul, Ed. Women and the Family in a Slave Society, Volume Nine of Articles on American Slavery. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. 1989.

Gaspar, David Barry and Darlene Clark Hine, Ed. More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hudson, Larry E. To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 1997.

Weiner, Mali F. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-80. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1998.

 

 

1. These models include the "Progressive Model," "The Racial Englightenment Model," "The Counter-Progressive Model," and the "Cliometric Model." These theories of slavery are detailed and compared in James C. Morgan's Slavery in the United States: Four Views, Jefferson: McFarland & Company. 1985. Morgan refutes that idea that slave breeding was not an important part of slave culture, a view that supports and re-affirms Jacobs' narrative and gives more credit to the experience and remembrance of the actual slave.