“Faithful Are the Wounds of a Friend”: How Harriet Jacobs Is Not Afraid to Offend Her Audience in &q
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Last fall I took a class on neo-slave narratives. Here is an essay I wrote on Harriet Jacobs' traditional slave narrative (as opposed to neo-slave narratives).
Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Incidents) differs from other slave narratives because Jacobs is less sensitive to her audience’s sensibilities than other slave narratives of the time. Jacobs uses Biblical quotes to expose hypocritic attitudes towards slavery and confronts Northerners as well as Southerners about their bigoted beliefs. While Jacobs has to defer to her audience somewhat, Jacobs’ approach is similar to neo-slave narratives where authors are not constrained by their audience. Incidents contains feminist elements that make it stand out from other slave narratives.
As Angelyn Mitchell notes, there were comparatively few female slave narratives (or emancipatory narratives as she labels them), creating a gap in knowledge of life for enslaved females. “Indeed one of the primary defining traits of contemporary Black women’s writing is the presentation of the self as central rather than marginal” (Mitchell 9). Jacobs’ Incidents clearly shows Jacobs as the central figure and shows her strong independence and what are arguably feminist attitudes.
Jacobs uses Biblical passages to state her plight and confront slavery and slaveholders. She points out there are differences in preachers, with many using religion to reinforce authority over the enslaved. However, there are exceptions such as the preacher who proclaims, “…God judges men by their hearts, not by the color of their skins” (63). Jacobs notes the need for such preachers as, “…the field is ripe for the harvest” (64), an allusion to John 4.35 which states, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields;” Linda is calling for preachers who will expose the evils of slavery. This attitude is experienced again when Linda stays with Amy Post noting, “They measured a man’s worth by his character, not his complexion” (154). When Dr. Flint tells Linda she can be “as virtuous as my wife” (65) if she is faithful to him, Linda points out the Bible doesn’t say so, exposing his hypocrisy. She also questions how Christians can support slavery when the New Testament states, “Proclaim liberty to the captive…” (The Bible, Luke. 4.18) and “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you” (Matt. 7.12) (Harris 162).
Jacobs confronts Southern attitudes towards slavery and conditions in the South, but she goes further in exposing the inequality amongst Southerners as well. She describes the horrific and brutal beatings the enslaved experience as well as the sexual violence inflicted on them by slaveholders. This description is not unusual as one of the primary objectives of slave narratives is to expose slavery’s sheer evil. What is unusual is Jacobs’ observation of the “low whites” persecution of enslaved blacks following the Nat Turner Rebellion; pointing out that the “low whites” were subjugated as well, “…the power that trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation” (55-56). This lends itself to a Marxist interpretation of the text’s analysis of the Southern power hierarchy.
Jacobs confronts Northerners’ biases, a risky undertaking given they are her target audience . Linda encounters biases in the North such as when she is not allowed to buy a first-class train ticket. She is also barred from sitting with whites at a dinner and told she can dine in the kitchen later. Not all attitudes are like this but they are noticeable enough that Jacobs travel to Europe leads her to observe, “During that time, I never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color. Indeed, I entirely forgot it till the time came to return to America” (Harris 151). Linda also recalls the prejudices faced by her son when he discovers his fellow apprentices’ prejudices, stating, “…it was offensive to their dignity to have a ‘nigger’ among them…” (151). This abuse ultimately leads to Ben leaving his employment, another reminder that racial bias is not limited to Southerners in the United States.
Jacobs shows tremendous independence in her quest for freedom and the freedom of her children. She also lives by her own standards, working the system against itself. For example, rather than submitting to Dr. Flint’s desire for children, she chooses who will father her children, gaining a semblance of control within an authoritarian system. This and other instances (such as Jacobs not needing to marry) provide material for feminist analysis of Incidents.
Slave narratives have often been seen as targeting Northerners to expose the evils of slavery. However, liberated authors often restrained their writing so as not to offend their audience whether it was morality or the perception that Northerners were not bigoted like their Southern neighbors. Incidents differs from these narratives because Jacobs challenges religion and Northern attitudes in her narrative. This is a risky venture but it allows her to expand the scope of traditional slave narratives in exposing bigotry and hypocrisy in both the North and South. This approach follows the Biblical proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27.6) in that a true friend will point out a hard truth, even if it is painful to bear. Furthermore, her observations into gender and class provide an opportunity for feminist and Marxist criticism of Incidents. Works Cited
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Editions, 2001.
Mitchell, Angelyn. The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in Contemporary Black Women's Fiction. Rutgers UP, 2002. EBSCOhost, proxy.buffalostate.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2002533212&site=ehost-live. Accessed 4 Sept. 2018.