Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Freedom and Gender: Complex Contradictions in Douglass and Jacobs College

The word “freedom” in early American history was one with innumerable meanings, depending on who was hearing it. To a white male in the 19th century, freedom was prosperity through land-owning and wealth. However, to a slave in the Antebellum period, freedom was undefinable and out of reach. In the cases of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, as evidenced by their autobiographies, gaining freedom from their masters was just the beginning of their liberation as human beings in a rapidly changing society. Both of these outspoken, intelligent abolitionist writers paved a way for themselves, and thousands of other African-Americans, through the power of their words. Freedom to a slave was not only physical, but psychological, and the transition from enslavement to empowerment was one defined by personal willpower and endurance. Frederick Douglass, in his narrative, details the horrors of southern slavery and its violations on the human mind and body; Harriet Jacobs is able to fill in the gaps, as a female slave, by describing the sexual exploitation and emotional torment women and families were forced to encounter during slavery. Slave narratives are the clearest insight historians have into the daily reality of slavery; both...

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