Table of Content
2 Depiction of slavery
3 Influences of slavery on the social environment
3.1 Slave families
4 Punishment and abuse
4.1 Physical abuses
4.2 Psychological abuses
Although the people from Africa already new slavery on the African continent, they experienced totally new insights into slavery when arriving in the New World in the 19th century. Henceforward, a new era of dehumanization, depersonalization, brutal and dreadful mistreatments of Afro-Americans took place, which still in these days influence the history of the United States.
Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) are two autobiographical slave narratives which show on a very impressive, personal and emotional level the repercussions, the atrocities and effects of slavery on the individual slave as well as on the slaveholders.
However, it can be read that under an economy of slavery, both male and female slaves are feminized or “ungenered” and that the denial of subject status is linked to the exclusion of slaves from participation in the gender system that structured the dominant society (cf. Boesenberg 1999: 119). In this paper it will be analyzed and discussed in how far these gender-defining statements made by Boesenberg in particular can mislead the reader. Actually, a lot of gender-bound experiences of slaves will be pointed out in this paper which illuminate that the individual slave acts and lives accordingly to his or her gender.
The aim of this paper is to emphasize differences of gender-bound experiences between Douglass’ and Jacobs’ narratives. Firstly, a depiction of slavery will help the reader to empathetically imagine the conditions of the situation in which the slaves and the slaveholders lived together. In a second part the influences of slavery on the social environment will be analyzed while focus will be given on the one hand to the slave families and on the other hand to the slaveholders. In a third part punishment and abuse, which are split into physical and psychological abuses, will be discussed. In the end the conclusion sums up the results from the previous chapters and analyzes the view on gender in a slavery-controlled society mentioned in Boesenberg’s as well as in Matterson’s essay.
Preserving narrative continuity, this paper will refer to Jacobs as the author as well as the protagonist in the following analysis of the text while it will be kept in mind that the name Linda Brent serves as a pseudonym throughout the narrative and represents Jacobs, who thereby wanted to protect those people still subject to slavery.
2 Depiction of slavery
“Could you have seen that mother clinging to her child, when they fastened the irons upon his wrists; could you have heard her heart-rending groans, and seen her bloodshot eyes wander wildly from face to face, vainly pleading for mercy; could you have witnessed that scene as I saw it, you would exclaim, Slavery is damnable!”
(Jacobs 2004: 23).
In both autobiographies, named Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, there are representations of slavery, as well as metaphorical expressions which describe slavery and let the entire issue of gender-bound punishments and experiences appear in a very profound and exceptional light. Therefore, this chapter will compose a quite creative introduction into the topic based on the linguistic expressions of the two authors.
At the beginning of her book Jacobs immediately brings into focus the bad fortune of female slaves and their gender-bound experiences and gives the reader some impressions of slavery by developing metaphorical statements.
“She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink” (Jacobs 2004: 29). This quotation emphasizes how extreme and inevitable the fate of a human being is when a woman is born as a slave. Furthermore, the excerpt hints at the sexual exploitation that the female slave has to find out about while no one cares about her being lucky. She is forced to undergo the same mistreatments and torments that already her mother probably had to endure, meaning the sexual desires of her master. In reference to this topic, Jacobs additionally gives the reader another interesting picture of slavery which relates to her own good fortune of not being punished that brutally because of the fact that Dr. Flint does not want to expose himself in town and in the eyes of his children (cf. Jacobs 2004: 35). “The secrets of Slavery”, Jacobs notes, “are concealed like those of the Inquisition” (Jacobs 2004: 35).
Similar crucial expressions can be found which try to personify slavery in order to explain its substantial effects on the female slaves. When Jacobs talks about Dr. Flint’s intention to build her a new home and to make a lady out of her, it is thereafter explained “she tried hard to preserve her self-respect; but she was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for her” (Jacobs 2004: 52). This quotation illuminates to what extent slavery browbeats female slaves who had no chance of escaping from their cruel destiny.
Moreover, animalistic attributes are actually attached to slavery when Jacobs describes her struggle of choosing a name for her boy and the problems that could evolve in his slave life. “O, the serpent of Slavery has many and poisonous fangs” (Jacobs 2004: 62). Concerning her daughter and the fears that Jacobs feels because of the possible and oncoming exploitation that her daughter might experience, Jacobs gives the reader another picture of slavery. By saying that she might feel the weight of slavery’s chain, whose iron entereth into the soul (cf. Jacobs 2004: 79), it is metaphorically pointed out how slave girls in particular are psychologically affected by the means and ferocities of slavery. They cannot escape from their master’s claws, mostly have to stay under his authority for their whole life and suffer from his sexual craving.
In Douglass’ narrative the personification of slavery can also be found when he thinks about slavery shortly before he plans his escape from it. “There stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions” (Douglass 2003:77).
3 Influences of slavery on the social environment
In this chapter it is shown and analyzed which remarkable influences of slavery the two parties, meaning the slave families and slaveholders, experience and how various reactions evolve from different situations in order to deal with slavery. To avoid going behind the scope of the topic, only incidents that are clearly gender-focussed are discussed and analyzed in the upcoming chapter.
3.1 Slave families
“When I was six years old, my mother died, and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave” (Jacobs 2004: 8).
Although it is hard for Jacobs to recognize that she is a slave, she very soon discovers that the happy life with her mother and her kind mistress is not characteristic and consistent for her as a slave girl. “The slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel” (ibid: 8).
Thus, Jacobs’ first experience of slavery is that being treated as goods or chattel is indispensable in a slave girl’s life, while she also observes how the other kids of her grandmother are brought to the auction block. Metaphorically mentioning the same milk which nourished all of them with regard to her grandmother, Jacobs is concerned with typical maternal feelings that are destroyed by the power of slavery (cf. Jacobs 2004: 8). This horrible incident, which frequently happens to slave mothers, is taken up again and dramatized when the example of a woman is given who even loses all her children at the auction block on New Year’s Day, also called Hiring-day. “Gone! All Gone! Why don’t God kill me?” (Jacobs 2004: 16). This experience concretely points out in how far slavery can easily dismember a whole family and make a mother lose her confidence and her happiness by taking away her only love and reason to live on. Since slave children stay with their mother after their birth and also have to adopt their mother’s slave status, this experience again is completely bound to female slaves. Jacobs experiences a similar situation since Dr. Flint threatens her by saying that he will sell her child to humble her and to teach her discipline but he thereby ruthlessly lacerates her maternal heart (Jacobs 2004: 76).
In her essay Boesenberg even underlines that enslavement deprived the black woman of the parental function (Boesenberg 1999: 119).
Further on, it can be explored that slavery actually tries to eliminate parental feelings of slave mothers. Elaborating on this topic, the text reveals how typical maternal feelings and behaviours of the female slaves change due to their dreadful and hopeless living conditions. As a consequence unusual reactions can be recognized. For instance, Jacobs illustrates in her book how she uses her upcoming pregnancy to threaten and to triumphantly demonstrate her power over Dr. Flint because she wants to escape from his appalling influence and tortures (cf. Jacobs 2004: 56). Instead of underlining her mother feelings, it seems that Jacobs only uses her chance of scoring off Dr. Flint in that situation. Therefore, it can be concluded that usual maternal feelings of birth and love seem to wither or alter in the hearts of the female slaves since they are brutally forced to do so by the system of slavery.
“I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual, the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched” (Jacobs 2004: 52).
Heavy distress, affliction as well as depersonalization are not only emotional states and developments that are experienced by slaves, but also by slaveholders who create an alteration in their character over the years living in a slavery-controlled society. Consequently, the victimization of slaveholders occurs in particular contexts of the two narratives.
 Mr. Flint is Jacobs’ master, while exactly speaking, she is the property of his daughter who is five years old when Jacobs, a twelve-year-old girl, comes to the Flint’s family who also includes Mrs. Flint. Henceforward, Mr. Flint takes centre stage of her explanations of cruelties and he represents throughout the text the mean villain who tyrannizes her and abuses the entire slave system.