Family and community are extremely important in Incidents. Slavery is a dehumanizing, depraved system that seeks to reduce its participants to nameless, faceless brutes. Despite the propensity of some slaves to fall prey to rage, depression, or stupor, many were able to survive due to the support of their family and others in the black community. Family and friends and neighbors provided love, compassion, material aid, and assistance in escaping or hiding; they were able to instill in each other a sense of belonging and meaning. Even though they may have been denied the traditional elements of society - a real, binding marriage and children from husband and wife - and experienced separation from each other at the whim of a slaveholder, the ties they made with other slaves kept them from falling prey to irredeemable despair. Harriet would not have been able to maintain her sanity in the face of Dr. Flint's persecution without the love and protection of her grandmother, and her escape would have been impossible without her uncle and friends. The black community nurtures and succors its members in the face of unfathomable pain and suffering.
The Perils of Slavery for Women
While slavery was terrible for both men and women, the latter suffered its own particular tragedies. Women, and even young girls, found that their bodies were not their own - they were looked upon as sexual objects that existed for their masters to enact their most depraved sexual fantasies upon. They were taunted and insulted, as in Harriet's case, or outright raped. Many were made to bear the children of their white masters, all the while being deprived of marriage to the men that they would choose for themselves. Furthermore, any child born to a slave woman would be also be a slave, no matter the position of the father. Harriet notes that slave girls simply did not have the option of being virtuous since their virtue was under constant assault. Slave mothers also felt the keen and wrenching pain of seeing their children beaten or sold, or, if they were girls, experience the same woes as they did.
The All-Corrupting Power of Slavery
It is impossible to exaggerate how terrible slavery was for slaves. Many were beaten, raped, forced to work in terrible conditions for long hours, deprived of family ties, and had to deal with harsh weather and little or no food. Harriet's entire tale gives voice to the immorality and degeneracy of the system that would eventually spark a bloody war and prove untenable. However, her book is also valuable in that it speaks to another problem with slavery: it is just as corrupting for white people. Indeed, the entire South and even the North were affected by the cancer of slavery. Slave masters were licentious and vicious, and their wives were jealous and cruel. Children of slaveowners learned too early about violence and sex and, as they aged, they became indoctrinated into their parents' system. Even white people like Mr. Sands and Mr. Thorne, who did not practice outright violence, were callous and racist. Lies and hypocrisy were rampant. Christianity was diluted and perverted in the mouths of southern ministers and their congregants. Overall, slavery was corrupting to everyone in its reaches.
The value of motherhood is one of Jacobs's most salient themes. Harriet may not have wanted children for fear of them being caught in slavery's clutches, but her devotion to her children is overwhelmingly fierce. Every thing she does is for their sake -her running away from Dr. Flint, her years of discomfort, pain and loneliness in the crawlspace, her treacherous escape to the north, her wage labor in New York. Although Harriet did not have the domestic life that was idealized during the Victorian era, she nonetheless exhibited the all-consuming and unequivocal love of a mother for her children that no doubt resonated with northern female readers. Motherhood in its uplifting, virtuous and loving ideal is also represented in Harriet's grandmother.
Like her contemporary Frederick Douglass, Harriet exposes some of the same realities about religion in both the north and the south. She explains that religion was a way for slaveholders to keep their slaves in check - ministers delivered sermons about slaves obeying their masters - and to assuage their pricked consciences. Religious whites in the south were often paragons of hypocrisy, thinking that paying tithes and attending church services meant that their flagrant violence, lust, and greed were negated. The practitioners of real Christianity were the slaves, who meekly and humbly submitted themselves to God's will and practiced the virtues of charity, love, and patience. While some northerners were better, such as the Rev. Durham and his wife, others were afflicted by the same hypocrisy. Harriet touted the English as the only other real Christians she met.
The Fusion of African and American Culture
Incidents showcases the rich heritage of African history, tradition, and religion that fused with their American counterparts. This is most evident in the Christmas celebrations that the slaves partake in; they enjoy the western Christmas traditions but bring in the Johnkannaus tradition from its West African roots. They also sing spirituals, which, as historians of the period have thoroughly researched, use biblical themes and allusions but weave in themes of their own stories and sufferings that sometimes derived from their African past. Slaves also performed dances that drew on western and African traditions and rituals. Finally, even slave language was an amalgam of English and African dialect. Through these cultural fusions slaves created meaning for themselves in the context of their harsh lives.
Harriet possesses many admirable character traits, but perhaps her most inspiring one is perseverance. She has nearly impossible odds to surmount in her quest to escape bondage and make a better life for her children: she is a slave (obviously), she is a woman, she has a malicious and indomitable master, she is very far from the Free States, and she lives in a time when runaway slaves were being obsessively hunted down. Nevertheless, Harriet does not let any of that stop her. She endures horrible conditions in her hiding place for seven years. She has a harrowing escape to the north complete with a frightening swamp crawling with snakes and a perilous voyage in which her fate is in the hands of a white captain. She has to support herself in the north and avoid capture. Throughout, she works to elude the greedy and savage Dr. Flint and find a way to secure freedom for herself and her children. For years she does not give up, even though she is tested almost to her breaking point. Other characters, such as Aunt Marthy, Benjamin, and William demonstrate similar perseverance in the face of sorrow, physical pain, and impossible odds.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Questions and Answers
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Study Guide for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl study guide contains a biography of Harriet Jacobs, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
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