Speaking for Slave Women

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl summary

Popular American history has celebrated the involvement of black women in the "underground railroad," but little is said about women’s everyday resistance to the institutional constraints and abuses of slavery. We have probably all heard of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – two very prominent black female abolitionists-- but this site was created primarily to address the lives of less celebrated individuals; here, the focus is on the common tasks, relationships, burdens, and opinions of slave women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an incredible primary source for this type of research. I have chosen several passages from this narrative to demonstrate how one woman’s story spoke for an entire gender involved in the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

"Jacob’s tale was one of the few by a woman and one that dared to openly discuss sexual exploitation under slavery. Under the name of Linda Brent, the author wrote, ‘Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.’ At 28, Jacobs escaped from the sexual bondage of a white man, and waited a decade to write her story. She felt obligated to change the names and hide the details of her escape route" (William Loren Katz, Flight From the Devil: Six Slave Narratives, p. xxviii).

Just as male slaves were beaten (whipped, lashed, clubbed, etc.), women slaved were also subjected to physical abuse. Masters and mistresses used such punishments to control and dehumanize their slaves. In essence, these slaves were brought to the level of animals; there was little regard for their anguish. The following passage (as told by Harriet Jacobs) demonstrates the cruel practices of one misteress, and the effects it had on two slave women:

"Another neighbor was a Mrs. Wade. At no hour of the day was there a cessation of the lash on her premises. Her labors began with the dawn, and did not cease until long after nightfall. The barn was her particular place of torture. There she lashed slaves with the might of a man. An old slave of hers once said to me, "It is hell in missis’s house. ‘Pears I can never get out. Day and night I prays to die."

"The mistress died before the old woman, and, when dying, entreated her husband not to permit any one of her slaves to look on her after death. A slave who had nursed her children, and had still a child in her care, watcher her chance, and stole with it in her arms o the room where lay her dead mistress. She gazed a while on her, then raised her hand and dealt two blows to her face, saying, as she did so, ‘The devil has got you now!’ She forgot that the child was looking on. She had just begun to talk; and she said to her father, ‘I did see ma, and mammy did strike ma, so,’ striking her own face with her little have, The master was startled. He could not imagine how the nurse could obtain access to the room where the corpse lay; for he kept the door locked, He questioned her. She confessed that what the child had said was true, and told how she had procured the key. She was sold to Georgia" (Harriet Jacobs, p. 48)

In a supreme example of simple resistance, this woman strikes her dead mistress. It was impossible for this act to bring about the servant’s freedom, but after years of torture and submission the simple blows to the dead mistress probably brought joy to this slave. The act was disrespectful, and this what makes it so poignant – the slave woman probably felt zero respect or compassion for such a hateful mistress. In the slave’s eyes the mistress had betrayed an unspoken contract of "mutual obligation;" by mistreating her slaves, she violated their trust, which was reason enough to despise her.

Along with the beatings, slave women suffered from abuses unique to their gender. Men were primarily punished by torture or death, but added to those women were emotionally and verbally wronged. The following passage demonstrates Harriet Jacob’s unfortunate relationship with Dr. Flint, her master:

"When Dr. Flint learned that I was again to be a mother, he was exasperated beyond measure. He rushed from the house, and returned with a pair of shears. I had a fine head of hair; and he often railed about my pride of arranging it nicely. He cut every hair close to my head, storming and swearing all the time. I replied in some of his abuse, and he struck me. Some months before, he had pitched me down a flight of stairs in a fit of passion; and the injury I received was so serious that I was unable to turn myself in bed for many days. He then said, ‘Linda, I swear by God I will never raise my hand against you again;’ but I knew that he would forget his promise" (p. 77).

Not only was Jacobs subjected to sexual advances by this man, she was under his constant supervision. After numerous incidents with Dr. Flint, Jacobs spoke of the hopelessness of female slavery:

"No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery, The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother, or some good mistress; she may have a lover, whose good opinion and peace of mind are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her my be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless" (p. 51).

Because of his harbored desires, he simultaneously treated Harriet better than other (plantation or house) slaves, yet at the same tried to keep every aspect of her live firmly under his control. He considered her a very valuable slave – for many reasons – and this was reflected in the never ending search for her after she ran away.

Familial slave relations were inevitably influenced by the constant selling and transporting of their kin . Jacobs paid particular attention to the passion she felt for her children. During the seven years she spent in hiding at her grandmother’s house, she would watch them playing in the yard from a small hole in the wall of her tiny compartment. I have selected several passages from her narrative that reflect her will to have her children freed. She risked death for this cause, even abandoning her boy (Benny) and girl (Ellen) in the hopes that they would be sold to a more kindly master than Dr. Flint. The intense love between mother and children was a consistent theme throughout the entire narrative.

"I had a woman’s pride, and a mother’s love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each" (p.85).

Children and families were often separated and shipped to very distant parts of the nation. The following passage describes one woman’s heartbreaking experience, where ALL of her children were taken from her at once:

"Benny was just beginning to describe me when they were interrupted by an old slave woman, a near neighbor, named Aggie. This poor old creature had witnessed the sale of her children, and seen them carried off to parts unknown, without any hopes of ever hearing from them again. She saw that my grandmother had been weeping, and she said in a sympathizing tone, ‘What’s the matter, Aunt Marthy?’"

"’O Aggie,’ she replied, ‘it seems as if I shouldn’t have any of my children or grandchildren left to hand me a drink when I’m dying, and lay my old body in the ground. My boy didn’t come back with Mr. Sands. He staid at the north.’"

"Poor old Aggie clapped her hands for joy, ‘Is dat what you’s crying fur?’ she exclaimed. ‘Git down on your knees and bress de Lord! You don’t know whar poor Linda’s gone to; but you do know where her brudder is. He’s in free parts; and dat’s de right place. Don’t murmur at de Lord’s doings, but git down on your knees and tank him for his goodness’" (p. 135).

Relative to Aggie’s shattering experience, Harriet’s Grandmother was a blessed woman. Although her children and grandchildren were either deceased or had run away, she could thank the Lord that they were not still captive in the slave institution. Aggie’s degree of suffering was arguably worse, considering she would be unable to ever know the whereabouts or status of her family.

Children brought both joy and sorrow to slave mothers. They wept at the knowledge that their babies would be shackled under slavery, but simultaneously found escape and mirth in their existence.

"As months passed on, my boy improved in health. When he was a year old, they called him beautiful. The little vine was taking deep root in my existence, though its clinging fondness excited a solace in his smiles. I loved to watch his infant slumbers; but always there was a dark cloud over my enjoyment. I could never forget that he was a slave. Sometimes I wished that he might die in infancy. God tried me. My darling became very ill. The bright eyes grew dull, and the little feet and hands were so icy cold that I thought death had already touched them. I had prayed for his death, but never so earnestly as I now prayed for his life; and my prayer was heard. Alas, what a mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery" (p. 62).

Think about it:Position yourself in the mind of this mother. Imagine the intense hopelessness you might feel by understanding the lack of security in such a family. Powerless to decide where your children will live; unable to stop a master from striking them; incapable of protecting them in any way. This vulnerability led to increased resentment towards masters; more specifically, it fostered hatred towards white men in general.