Since grade school, students have been taught in their respective history classes about slavery. They were taught about the various aspects of slavery for example, the lack of formal and informal education,
their mistreatment, abuse, both verbal and physical, and the everlasting slaughter of innocent slaves. Though there are occasions where one hears that there was a master that didn’t mistreat and abuse his slaves. Those types of master-slave relationships were extremely rare. According to many text and history books slaves were often mistreated and abused on a daily basis. The question, now is, did the mistreatment and abuse of the slaves, in particular the women slaves, in the autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs actually occur to that extent. Were slaves really treated in such a way presented by Ms. Jacobs in her autobiography? Slaves were definitely mistreated and abused by their masters and overseers, but what extent did that mistreatment and abuse actually go, is what needs a deeper look.
Harriet Jacobs had to use a pseudonym, Linda Brent to be able to publish her autobiography. Ms. Jacobs will be referred to as Linda for the sake of this paper. The autobiography begins with Linda by stating the, “I was born a slave; but never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away”. By this statement, one would begin to question, how could a child born into slavery not know that she was a slave? If one is born a slave, people would believe that mistreatment and abuse starts from, very early ages like around one and two years of age. According to Paul E. Scott, in the novel Slavery Remembered, “It was possible a young slave to grow well past infancy in a naïve, childish happiness, oblivious to the painful gulf between his blood relations and his master”. (Escott, 29) Thus this statement validates, those of Linda. The master and mistress did not begin to instill in them at a young age that they were their property and they must obey their every command and wish. So for a child born into slavery and didn’t know that she was a slave, as Linda describes, makes one believe that the mistreatment and abuse could not have been all that damaging and harmful. To have a general sense, it seems that slave children were aloud to grow, without the burden of being a slave or even a servant up until the age five or six which, coincides with the timeline given by Linda in her autobiography. After the age of five or six the, they are made to do minor household chores, and by the age of fifteen almost all slaves were at work on their regular tasks.
Another mistreatment that fell upon slaves was their “right”, or lack there of, to education. Slaves were not given any rights especially the right to learn, or be taught. For Linda to be taught, by her mistress of all people, how to “read and spell” is a far cry of mistreatment. Being taught to read and spell, would that count as mistreatment or the bettering of a slave that had no right to that knowledge. Later on in her autobiography, she claims to have taught herself. So which part of the autobiography does one side with, the part where she praises her mistress for teaching her to read and spell, or the portion where she makes the reader believe that she taught herself how to read and write. This is a large discrepancy, and truly makes a massive difference, in how one would view the rest of Linda’s story. These kinds of discrepancies, makes the reader criticize all that Linda brings to our attention. There are slave narratives that can found, for example in Black Slave Narratives, which one slave remembers how her mistress taught her to read, but that there were other motives behind it, so that she would be able to spy upon the other slaves and write down all the “wrong doings” by the other slaves. (Bayliss, 65) Why did Linda praise her mistress by acknowledging the fact that she taught her how to read, was it to down play the mistreatment of her by her mistress, or did it actually occur that way, and the statement made later on in the text, was to make herself look better in the eyes of the reader.
There is an extremely common and appropriate reason to why some slaves praise their masters, though they are mistreated and abused. The reason was age, when slaves were still young they had “limited experiences [which] quite naturally produced limited views”. (Escott, 31) They usually spoke very well of master and mistress and food, while denying that they were ever abused. Linda praised her mistress by vocalizing such things like: “As a child, I loved my mistress…”, “…I bless her memory”, “My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding…”, “I would sit by her side for hours…”, and finally arguing that “Those were happy days-too happy to last”. (Jacobs 371) As seen through Linda’s admiration filled eyes, one would strongly believe that slaves were not treated as bad as they led everyone to believe, but the reader must take into consideration that at this point in time Linda was indeed a child. As it is today, the same as it was in Linda’s time children are not the most reliable source of information, because of the fact that they have such little experience with the matter at hand. By Linda’s testimony as a child, one should not begin to infer anything about the actual mistreatment and abuse of slaves.
One of the first mistreatment mentioned by Linda, is when her new mistress Mrs. Flint made her take off her brand new shoes and stockings given to her by her grandmother, and “sent [her] on a long distance, on an errand”, while in the snow. (Jacobs, 379) This mistreatment could also be called abuse, to an extent. There was no reason for the punishment, or even the errand she was sent on. That abuse was cruel and uncalled for, and at this period in her autobiography is where, the reader can see a change in Linda from naïve, young slave girl, into a more open minded, mature, experienced slave. This is when, if Linda attacks or praises someone, whether it is her master, mistress, or lover one would more than likely be able to take her word at face value.
This abuse given to her by her mistress was short lived because her master took a very unappreciated interest in the young Linda. He protected her from everyone except himself, no one was allowed to touch her, strike her, or even make her work in the fields. She became the master’s pet and she was grateful for his protection, but what he wanted from her, she would not give. Not only was the abuse of slaves’ physical, but also it was also mental, especially amongst the women slaves. Mr. Flint, Linda’s master began to torment her and make her life a living hell. “My master met me at every turn reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him”. (Jacobs, 386) Though the master protects her from physical abuse from everyone else, he often verbally abuses her, and on very rare occasions physically abused her himself. Verbal and physical abuse of a female slaves, was pretty much the norm. They were forced into having sexual intercourse, from people like their masters, his children, and the overseers. (Garrison, 62)
It seems as though the female slaves are more likely than the males to experiences various sorts of abuse and mistreatment. Men had mostly to only deal with the beatings, but men were not only physically abused but also mentally. What would you call having to watch or here of your mother, aunt, sister, cousin, or even niece being raped and conceiving a child for your master? It is called abuse, of the mental kind in respect to the male slaves. Slaves were not allowed to marry and weren’t supposed to have intercourse. For a male slave to see a woman that maybe he wanted to marry and was not allowed to with child, and when the child is born he/she is mulatto. Surely it caused and extreme amount of mental anguish. People tend not to look at things concerning male slaves in that way. The abuse is extensive for both men and women in this case.
Linda goes as far as to ask the question “why does the slave ever love”. (Jacobs, 392) That sort of question immediately leads you to believe that there has been some form of mistreatment or abuse, and that it is carried with her, her entire life. Everyone deserves love and everyone should love. Linda wanted to be sold to a “free-born” man and marry him, but Dr. Flint would not allow it. Dr. Flint asked Linda if she loved the man and she replied yes and “he sprang upon [her] like a tiger and gave [her] a stunning blow”. (Jacobs, 394) That is the first time Dr. Flint struck her but it wouldn’t be the last. Almost every woman in this word wants to marry and have kids, just assure, it was probably the same way in Linda’s time. After a while a women’s maternal wants start to kick in and she begins to want to raise a family of her own. To have that not available as an option is crushing and is probably one of the worst form of mistreatment and abuse to Linda and other young ladies and women, in her position. Then to also be verbally abused by your mistress, by attacking your wants, and making it known that she opposes slaves having a right to any family ties of their own and that the were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress. (Jacobs, 392) Various other slave narratives tell of similar and even worse mistreatment and abuse, so it seems as if these incidents depicted by Jacobs can also be taken at face value.
There in no question without an answer in this case. The extent of the mistreatment and abuse, physical, mental and emotional is no longer in question. These acts of cruelty violence, and abuse more than likely happened the way Jacobs depicts them, and is even possible that she didn’t disclose the full extent of the abuse. There is no way that these instances were over exaggerated, they were more likely to be under exaggerated, if anything. Through various sources it is seen that events, such that are vividly recreated in Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, were very possible and similar acts were seen throughout several different slave narratives of slaves from different states. When Linda cried, “there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even death” she was honestly speaking the truth and she just happened to be one of the ‘lucky’ ones that was able to make it out alive and tell her story.
Bayliss, John. Black Slave Narrative. New York City: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
Escott, Paul. Slavery Remembered. Charlotte: The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 1979.
Garrison, Mary. Slaves Who Dared. Shippensburg: White Mane Books, 2002.
Press, Arnco. Five Slave Narratives. New York: Arnco Press, 1968.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, 1861.