“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs
In Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she talks about her life as a slave woman and elaborates on the inhumane treatments she faced in the 19th century. Using the pseudonym Linda Brent throughout her narrative, she discusses how slaves were nothing more than possessions to be attained and how they faced the risk of being separated from their families by being sold off if they transgressed against their masters. Jacobs depicts her life using strong, emotional-filled language to describe the trials she goes through. This moving story echoes the bitter reality of many African-Americans from the slavery era who were not as fortunate as Harriet Jacobs. They were separated from their families due to the immoral acts of enslaving a specific group of people. Jacobs’ story is one of many, depicting the horrors faced by Afro-Americans just due to the racial bias. Modern researches agree that slavery had a destructive influence on the relationships within the Afro-American families. Because of the cruel rules appointed by the slave owners, these people were not able to sustain normal connections with their spouses and children. Slavery was the ultimate catalyst for destroying family ties for future generations of African-Americans and thus destroying any known culture they had.
The hardships experienced by the slaves
The damage caused to the enslaved people’s feelings and emotions was so serious that its influence was still experienced by the next generations. The most crucial effects were concerned with making the slaves feel as second-rate, classifying them as indecent, and spreading the belief that they could not be taught anything (Bryan 133). The worst thing was that these people were not able to have “normal family relationships” (Bryan 133).
The purpose of making the slaves consider themselves “inferior” was to induce them to feel the need of being controlled by the “superior beings” (Bryan 134). These superior individuals made all the decisions for the slaves and chose what was “best” for them (Bryan 134). It would be wrong to think that physical threatening has the most severe impact. In fact, it was merely one of the many forms of unfair treatment of the slaves (Bryan 134).
The most crucial issue was the annihilation of the slaves’ self-respect and self-dignity. It began as early as on the ships by which they were transported. The individuals belonging to the same community and those speaking the same dialect were isolated so that no communication was possible. Such kind of division was further kept in the owner’s household (Bryan 134). Demoralizing and disorientating actions against the slaves involved being put in the strange environment, punished for conduct natural to them but disapproved by the owners, and not allowed to communicate sufficiently. Furthermore, disgraceful living circumstances and being considered “subhuman and stupid” added to the horrific state of the slaves’ existence (Bryan 134).
What concerns family life, the owners employed various hideous approaches to destroy the enslaved people’s family relationships and undermine their values. First of all, the families were disconnected. The second immoral demand was requiring the slaves to “produce” more working force (Bryan 134). This was an example of the notion “blaming the victim”: the male slaves were made to have intercourse with many females, and then were called “immoral” for doing so (Bryan 134). Another method of humiliating the notion of marriage was the owner’s ignoring the religious ritual of the wedding: instead, they made the slaves perform some absurd act like jumping over a broom or something like that (Bryan 134). Many more things added to the deterioration of the family ties among the slaves. Among them was the prohibition to study and being looked upon as “livestock to be bought and sold” (Bryan 134). Every time a slave was bought by another owner, his or her last name was converted to the new purchaser’s one.
All of these actions had a long-lasting impact on the slaves’ families and many future generations. They gave birth to the matriarchal family structure of Afro-Americans, affected the access to education, and caused much damage to the feeling of dignity. While some people think that more than a century of non-slavery should have erased the impact of slavery, it is easier said than done. The consequences of this terrible form of injustice are still felt nowadays.
Outcomes of the adverse impact of slavery on the family ties: present situation
The results of the many efforts to diminish the relationships in African-American families are clearly seen in the modern lifestyles. The most severe consequence of historical events is the rise of the number of families without fathers (Franklin and James n. p.). Apart from that, Afro-American women tend to bear children at a much younger age than white women and as a result, face the danger of entering poverty (Franklin and James n. p.).
A conclusion made by Alexis de Tocqueville after his visit to the US in 1831 connects the institution of marriage with the issues of slavery (qtd. in Franklin and James n. p.). He wrote that the men’s unwillingness to get married has its roots in the times of slavery when they could not employ their “marital authority,” and their children had to follow “the wretchedness of their father” (qtd. in Franklin and James n. p.). Thus, according to de Tocqueville, Afro-American fathers still have a notion of the disability to have “the duties, the privileges, the hopes, and the cares” pertaining to “paternal relation” (qtd. in Franklin and James n. p.).
The researchers agree that the present state of things regarding the problems in family life takes its beginning in the period of slavery. Not only and not so much do the financial issues impact the situation as the social concerns do (Franklin and James n. p.). Thus, slavery proves to be the major drive of the corrupted treatment of family ties.
Analysis of destructive power of slavery in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs’ book is a vivid illustration of the hardships experienced by the enslaved people and the ruinous impact done by slavery to the family relationships. Linda Brent, the pseudonym employed for the story, begins her narration with the usual words for an autobiography: “I was born” (Jacobs 11). However, on the contrary to the assumption of what should follow next – a year or a location– she continues her sentence by “a slave” (Jacobs 11). This opening line prepares the audience to hear a sad story of a person deprived of the highest value – freedom. However, Linda soon explains that she did not know about her being “a piece of merchandise” till the age of six when her mother died (Jacobs 12). By calling herself this way, the girl draws the readers’ attention to the bitterness of her state. The issue of the corruption of family institution is described by the author in the following lines. She says that she was only “trusted” to her parents “for safe keeping” and could “be demanded of them at any moment” (Jacobs 12).
Further, Linda mentions that not only was it difficult to buy out one’s own child. Sometimes, as in the case of her grandmother, the slaves were deceived by their owners and deprived of their hard-earned money which they collected to “purchase” their offspring (Jacobs 13). The situation in which Linda’s grandmother appeared makes the audience sympathize with her and feel disgust and hatred towards the woman she worked for. As Linda puts it, there could be no “honor of a slaveholder to a slave” (Jacobs 13). Thus, the enslaved people were threatened both morally and financially and could not hope for the mercy of their masters and mistresses.
With the death of her mother, the “unusually fortunate circumstances” end for Linda (Jacobs 14). These words show the little girl’s understanding of her sad position: from the early age, she realizes that being happy is not a usual state for a slave girl.
As Linda grows into girlhood, she meets another challenge: she cannot marry the man she loves. In her pathetic question “why does the slave ever love?” there is so much pain and disappointment (Jacobs 58). We can see the tortures of the girl’s soul when she realizes that despite her feelings, she will never be able to unite with her beloved man. Once again, slavery is spreading its dark shade on the people’s happiness and obscures their prospects for the future family. However, being refused by her master to get married, Linda does is not afraid to announce him how she hates his decision. Being struck by Dr. Flint, the girl holds on to her opinion and is not afraid to tell him that he “struck her for answering him honestly” (Jacobs 61).
In her further perturbations, Linda meets a lot of challenges and dangers. She becomes a mistress of a lawyer who promises to help her get free; she is afraid of her grandmother’s misunderstanding; she hides in various places and has to take care of her children by her own. However, all these events make her stronger and even more willing to become an independent person. The book by Harriet Jacobs is not only the depiction of the terrors of slavery but also a hymn to freedom proclaimed by the main character.
The destructive impact of slavery on the family ties for future generations of African-Americans has been illustrated in numerous narrations and researches. Slavery has undermined the Afro-American beliefs in happy family life and self-dignity. Much time is required to overcome the consequences of this terrible historical period. Slavery caused people to lose their family bonds and made them feel less important and honorable. However, the most dramatic thing is that the outcomes of slavery continue to influence the lives of Afro-American people nowadays. There are frequent cases of incomplete families and undermined culture values among the people belonging to this population. The society needs to do everything possible to eliminate the adverse outcomes of slavery and to make sure that such relationship-destroying things never find a place in the present and future history of the USA.
Bryan, Willie V. Multicultural Aspects of Disabilities: A Guide to Understanding and Assisting Minorities in the Rehabilitation Process. 2nd ed., Charles C Thomas, 2007.
Franklin, Donna L., and Angela D. James. Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African-American Family. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, 1861. Documenting the American South, Web.