In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs tells the story of her life as a slave and her struggle to gain freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs is the only black woman author to publish an autobiographical book-length fugitive slave narrative (Mullen 254). Her story is a significant departure from the conventional masculine slave narrative because she focuses on the experiences of the black female slave. Bringing the enslaved black woman to the centre enables Jacobs to explore the meanings and nuances of psychic trauma, one of the most devastating effects of rape and sexual abuse. The central aim of her narrative is to bolster the abolitionist movement and encourage antislavery sentiment. One of the main strategies she uses in her autobiography to engender sympathetic identification from her audience is to deconstruct the most pernicious myths about the institution of slavery, particularly as they relate to black female slaves. By deconstructing the damaging myth of the Jezebel, Jacobs reduces the social, moral, and emotional space between herself and her primarily northern female audience. As a result, she awakens their sympathies towards all slaves, especially enslaved black women.
Myth of the Jezebel
Much of the first half of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is dedicated to deconstructing the Jezebel myth. The Jezebel myth holds that enslaved black women are wanton and lascivious creatures with insatiable sexual appetites (Hopkins 6). Accordingly, black female slaves use sexual temptation to ensnare white men and precipitate their moral degradation. In Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks writes that during slavery, the myth of black female promiscuity justified their rape by white men. So long as the white slave-owner could label enslaved black women prostitutes and whores, he could absolve himself of all responsibility for his sexual violence (hooks 25), while increasing his property and terrorizing his black female slaves into “allegiance and obedience to the white imperialistic order” (hooks 27). Jacobs is well aware of the Jezebel myth and the antipathy it creates in white men and women. With white Northern women being her primary audience, she works from many angles to deconstruct the myth. I am interested in the way Jacobs centers on trauma in order to humanize the black female slave and redeem her as a victim of sexual violence and persecution.
Trauma and Silence
The suffering Jacobs endures as a result of Dr. Flint’s overpowering sexual threats amounts to a repetitive and continuous trauma. She writes, “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. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there.” This passage indicates the manifestation of psychic trauma. Jacobs appears to experience “heightened physiological arousal” (Brown 100): she is hyper-vigilant and has a distracted mind, envisioning her sadistic master everywhere she goes. In other passages she refers to disturbed sleep and involuntary physical responses at the sound of his voice or his footsteps (Jacobs 48). The reader cannot help but sympathize with Jacobs, as she shows that both her body and mind are thoroughly vulnerable to Dr. Flint’s brutal impulses.
Trauma and silence have an important connection in the text. Patricia Hopkins ponders the role that silence and bearing witness play in Jacobs’ narrative. She writes that silence pervades Jacobs’ narrative and makes reference to three significant silences in the text: First, Jacobs waits until her daughter, Ellen’s adolescence to tell her about her sexual persecution by Dr. Flint. Second, Jacobs is evasive about the details of her relationship with Mr. Sands (a white Northern businessman and the father of her children), especially during the period between Benny’s and Ellen’s births. And third, the extent of Ellen’s sexual victimization is somewhat ambiguous, insofar as the reader is left unsure whether Mr. Thorne’s sexual depravity went even further than the “vile language” he poured in her ears (Hopkins 18).
After referring to these silences, Hopkins asks the following rhetorical questions: “‘What is Brent not saying? What does she not say about both Flint and Sands? Is it this silence which allows the cycle of generational sexual abuse to continue unchecked?’” (18). Similarly, in remarking on black female slave narratives, hooks writes that “Few slave parents warned their daughters about the possibility of rape or helped them to prepare for such situations. The slave parents’ unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality” (25). Like, Hopkins, hooks shifts the responsibility for silence onto the victim without taking into account the peculiarities of trauma. To add to these analyses of silence, I argue that the silence pervading the topic of sexual violence and exploitation in the text reflects more than deep-rooted shame and nineteenth century American conventions of modesty. Drawing on articles by Cathy Caruth and Geoffrey H. Hartman, I assert that the silences in Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl are the most significant reflections of the complex inner workings of trauma within the entire text.
Because Jacobs has demonstrated great empowerment in her ability to take control of her trauma and integrate it into knowledge for the sake of testimony, it is easy for the reader to assume she has somehow transcended the unspeakability of trauma. Nonetheless, the reader should remember that Jacobs was completely powerless when Dr. Flint and Mr. Sands sexually exploited her. The immediacy of those traumatic events meant she did not experience them as they occurred; instead they “bypassed perception and consciousness and fell directly into her psyche” (Hartman 537). As Caruth writes, “Central to the very immediacy of [the traumatic] experience…is a gap that carries the force of the event and does so precisely at the expense of simple knowledge and memory” (7). As Jacobs transforms the trauma into a narrative that an audience can read and understand, there will inevitably be fractures, gaps, breaks, and silences because traumatic knowledge, by its very nature, cannot be made entirely conscious (Caruth 10). It follows, then, that Jacobs would have considerable difficulty in relaying both her abuse by Mr. Flint to her daughter, as well as her sexual manipulation by Mr. Sands to the readers. These are traumas she herself continues to work through, and they will likely always remain partly inaccessible. And so, Jacobs’ silence in the face of sexual persecution does not make her complicit in the cycle of generational sexual abuse. Quite the opposite, her verbal and textual silences only reinforce her position as a victim and deserving recipient of her readers’ compassion.
Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.
Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 3-12. Print.
Hartman, Geoffrey, H. “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies.” New Literary History 26.3 (1995): 537-563. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.
hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Hopkins, Patricia D. “Seduction or Rape: Deconstructing the Black Female body in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Making Connections 13.1 (2011): 4-20. ProQuest. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 9-156. Print.
Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 253-278. Print.