In her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs makes the case that “[slavery] is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. ” (Jacobs #) According to female slave narratives like Incidents and The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, it is worse to be a female slave because, in addition to the brutalities endured by all slaves, enslaved women are also victims of a sexist and patriarchal society where they are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as bear the added anguish of becoming mothers and knowingly raising children into this horrific system of bondage.
Slave narratives are often autobiographical and detail the narrator’s path from slavery to freedom. These types of narratives show an individual’s struggle in overcoming seemingly impossible odds with willpower and determination. What sets Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The History of Mary Prince apart from most narratives, is that they detail the horrific conditions enslaved women faced, the violation of their most basic rights in accordance with society’s gender norms, and their struggle to gain freedom.
Many slave narratives, whether narrated by men or women, describe scenes of the horrible abuse and torture endured by slaves, and although Jacobs’ and Prince’s narratives do present gory descriptions of the physical abuse, they also expose the unique and horrifying experiences enslaved women endured at this time in history.
Andrea Alonzo describes in her essay, “A Study of Two Women’s Narratives”, that both men and women were subjected to extreme physical abuse such as whippings, beatings, and lynchings, were provided with horrible living conditions, clothing and food, as well as many other forms of horrible emotional, mental, and physical abuse. However, she notes that women are forced to endure the “humiliation and pain of sexual exploitation”, such as “[rape], concubinage, and the wrath of jealous mistresses” (Alonzo 120-121) amongst many other types of torture and abuse.
Mary Prince’s narrative describes these indignities, especially when she first meets her new mistress. And she taught me (how can I forget it! ) more things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand. [… ] She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves. (Prince 14) After her first day with her new masters and learning her tasks, her mistress decides to whip her with the purpose of teacher her how each part of the whip felt on her body when it was used against her.
Prince describes that her mistress was not always “contented with using the whip”, however, and when dealing with the younger boys, she “often pinched their cheeks and arms in the most cruel manner” (15). As the last line suggests, Mrs 1-, receives great pleasure from mistreating her slaves, especially since Prince also describes her mistress’ inclination to stay up and force Prince to pick wool and cotton as she watched her suffer through the night.
This is exemplified in the fourth chapter of Incidents when Linda describes her master, Dr. Flint: For my master, whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking whom to devour, had just left me, with stinging, scorching words; words that scathed ear and brain like fire. [… ] When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong. Incidents 147) In this passage, Linda Brent describes her realization that Dr. Flint has complete and total authority over her; however, as the last line suggests she also realizes that she has the power to resist him. His actions against her eventually push her to fight back in resistance against him, and her rebellious outburst allow her to take the course of actions she takes throughout the novel in order to free herself and her children from slavery.
Jacobs’ describes the lengths at which slaveowners would go to control the lives of their slaves in Chapter 9, explaining that slaveowners imposed strict rules and schedules in order to monitor and dictate their slaves’ every waking moment. After dinner, and after the lights went out at nine o’clock, Jacobs explains that their master “entered every cabin, to see that men and their wives had gone to bed together, lest the men, from over-fatigue, should fall asleep in the chimney corner, and remain there till the morning horn called them to their daily task” (185).
She continues to explain that “[women] were considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on par with animals” (185). So not only are enslaved women dehumanized, but they are considered to be on the same level as animals who can provide a slave owner with two main services: labour and food; and considering the jobs that enslaved women would hold consisted of household duties, such as working in the kitchen, these menial duties normally consisted of preparing and cooking food, or providing food and nutrition as a wet nurse.
Holly Blackford, author of “Figures of Orality”, an essay on the characters of the master, mistress and slave mother in Jacobs’ Incidents, makes an interesting case for Jacobs’ narrative, arguing that there is a reoccurring motif throughout the novel involving a woman’s sexuality and food. She states that “[the] status of the female slave in the food economy as breeder, wet nurse, kitchen, kitchen laborer, and sexual object intimately associates her with food and appetite satiation”. She continues with the idea that Linda Brent’s “status as a slave precludes her consent to her body as food” (Blackford 317).
Within the domestic realm of the kitchen, the privacy of the household allows for abuse to go unseen and unnoticed by the public. It is within the domestic sphere that slave women are subjected to sexualized abuse. Blackford suggests that “Dr. and Mrs. Flint find perverse acts of orality, such as force feeding and depriving slaves of food, titillating because they assert “mastery” of the slave throughout the never fully mastered, or never truly consenting, black mouth” (318).
She uses the description of Dr. Flint in the second chapter of Jacobs’ narrative as an example: Dr. Flint was an epicure. The cook never sent a dinner to his table without fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to his liking, he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her to eat every mouthful of it in his presence. The poor, hungry creature might night have objected to eating it; but she did object to having her master cram it down her throat till she choked. (Incidents 140) This passage is wrought with erotic language.
The use of the word “epicure” not only brings forth the idea that the master is a connoisseur, but also shows him as someone dedicated to sensual pleasure. His intense actions and dominance over the household resonates with the language of sexual dominance, especially in terms of force-feeding the enslaved women until they choke. He exerts his dominance over the female body without any regard for consent, further proving that slavery eradicates the possibility for a female slave to have control over her own body.
Unfortunately, this is a reality for many of the enslaved women, and even girls, at this time. They learn at a rather early age that they do not own the rights to their own bodies or actions – they are completely dehumanized and objectified by their masters for their own gain and pleasure. The same can be said for another of Prince’s masters, Mr D—, who had great pleasure in forcing Prince into awkward situations. She explains, “[he] had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked, and ordering me then to wash him in a tub of water” (Prince 24).
Her master, rather unashamedly, forced her into situations that made her feel shameful due to their indecent and inappropriate nature, and as Prince states, “[this] was worse to me than all the licks” (24). For Mary Prince, this act of indecency brings the realization that she does not have control over her own body; what she must or must not do is dictated by her master. However, this does not mean that they would necessarily be opposed to being sexually active, as long as it was consensual.
Both Mary Prince and Linda Brent were involved with men outside of marriage, whether they did it for love or out of necessity, they were able to make the decision and consent to be sexually active. However, abiding to the precariousness of their situations, the fact that marriage outside of wedlock was shameful, and that women should be virtuous, they did have to tell their stories quite carefully.
For example, when Linda Brent first begins to explain her relationship with Mr. Sands in Incidents, she first warns the reader: But, o, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery.
I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless despair. (Incidents 191) This passage ultimately explains that not only does slavery dehumanize its victims, but it also defeminizes enslaved women. In this passage, Brent, or Jacobs’ appeals to the white female reader, explaining the rights and privileges she has as a white woman.
In comparison to Brent and other enslaved women, the white woman has everything that allows her to remain the epitome of femininity; the perfect ideal of womanhood. Among these rights and privileges is the right to remain virtuous and innocent, as well as to marry whomever she chooses. Mary Prince’s narrative, although related by Prince, is not written by her. Therefore, much of the story narrated by Prince was heavily edited, and for the most part, the editing was crucial in making Prince appear innocent and so instances of extra-marital affairs would have been omitted from her narrative.
The same is seen in the seventh chapter of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: There was in the neighborhood a young colored carpenter; a free born man. We had been well acquainted in childhood, and frequently met together afterwards. We became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl’s first love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such, my heart sank within me. My lover wanted to buy me; but I knew that Dr. Flint was too wilful and arbitrary a man to consent to that arrangement. 170-171)
Despite the fact that these women were able to be romantically involved with someone, marriage is not always a possibility. Although Linda Brent wishes to retain an innocent and virtuous image, she believes this to be quite unfortunate as the right to marry would bring the end to some of the issues she faces as a female slave. Despite the effects it would have on her image, she feels it is necessary to relate her experiences. In fact, she argues that if she had been allowed to marry, she would not have used extra-marital sex as a way to evade the threat of Dr. Flint’s abuse.