Musings on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Part 4

Previous parts

Chapter 36: Mrs. Hobbs, who is taking care of Linda’s daughter Ellen, has a southern brother, Mr. Thorne, who knows Linda’s grandmother.  He comes to visit, but Ellen soon finds herself running back and forth to get rum and brandy for him and Mr. Hobbs–and Mr. Thorne “poured vile language” into her ears.  One day, he tears up and scatters a letter in the yard, which Ellen soon pieces together due to suspicions.

Her suspicions are right: The letter is to Dr. Flint, telling him where Linda is and how easily he can get her.  The children take the letter to Mrs. Hobbs, who goes to confront her brother, but he has already left with another letter.  The next morning, he flees for New York before anyone else is up.

Linda hurries home, where she tells her employer, Mrs. Bruce, that she’s a fugitive slave in danger of being caught.  Mrs. Hobbs lets her take Ellen, at least for 10 days, and Mrs. Bruce and others help her get out of the city and onto a steamboat.  Ellen is raggedy and has had no schooling, which upsets Linda.

On the boat she finds more prejudice, as colored passengers are supposed to sleep on deck, but with a child and under the circumstances, she asks to be allowed to sleep in the cabin.  The stewardess says no because too many rich people travel on this route.

However, Linda is able to convince the captain to let her sleep below deck, and when they get to shore, he also convinces the conductor of the train to allow her to ride in the first car behind the engine.

In Boston, she and a friend set up house together, she gets Mrs. Hobbs to let Ellen stay with her, she has both her children with her now, and she gets Ellen into school.  Finally, things are looking up.

Chapter 37: As a mother, especially after my own difficult labor, the thought of a woman dying in childbirth saddens me.  She’s waited all this time for the happy event, only to find the end of her life.  What was born in love, ends in death, with her stuck in a distressing labor she can’t escape from.

These thoughts return as I read that Linda’s employer, Mrs. Bruce, died in childbirth (the baby also dead) in the following spring.

Mr. Bruce takes their other daughter, Mary, to England to visit relatives, with Linda as her nurse, while Linda leaves her children in safe hands back in the States.  Benny is apprenticed to a printer, while Ellen goes to school.

And in England, “For the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion.”

She notes the living conditions of dirt-poor and oppressed English peasants, and realizes they still live better than American slaves:

They fear no lash, no one will take their children away or make them toil from starlight to starlight in heat and cold, there are societies and schools set up to help them.  No patrols will flog them in the middle of the night; no one will give them 39 lashes for teaching each other how to read and write.

An English visitor to America had painted a glowing picture of slavery in the US, but Linda says she should become a poor governess on a Louisiana or Alabama plantation, rather than visiting among the fashionable.

The behavior of oppressive white Christians in her hometown had turned her against the Episcopal Church, but here in England, she is inspired by true Christians.

She stays there 10 months without experiencing prejudice against color.  She writes, “Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till the time came for us to return to America.”

Chapter 38: Linda goes back to Boston, and finds Ellen well and doing well at school.  Benny has done very well at his apprenticeship and has been well liked–until they discovered he was black.  (Apparently he is very light-skinned.)

“They began by treating him with silent scorn, and finding that he returned the same, they resorted to insults and abuse.  He was too spirited a boy to stand that, and he went off.”

Good for him: Nobody should have to take insults and abuse, and I would’ve done the same.  So off he goes on a whaling voyage, and is gone for a few years.

Her young mistress is now married, and writes Linda a letter.  She says she heard Linda was in England “with a family,” and waited for her return.

I was suddenly struck with the thought that Linda would be like an illegal immigrant: She’s been smuggled out of the slave states into the free, without anyone giving her papers proving that she is legally free.

This was before the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, and many trusted in the personal liberty laws of Massachusetts and other Northern states, but the law of the land still would consider Linda the property of the Flints.  I wonder if her employers would be subject to prosecution….

Her mistress writes that she wants Linda with her, or she can buy herself.  What she says sounds very kind to me, but Linda feels insulted, that her mistress thinks her stupid enough to fall for it.  She does not respond.  This letter shows her that the Flint family is aware of her movements somehow.

Linda wants her money to go to her children’s education and a home, not to buying herself, which she finds both hard and unjust.

I could not possibly regard myself as a piece of property….I knew the law would decide that I was [Dr. Flint’s] property, and would probably still give his daughter a claim to my children; but I regarded such laws as the regulations of robbers, who had no rights that I was bound to respect.

Chapter 39: Linda decides to send Ellen off to boarding school, but first tell her about her father.  Turns out Ellen already knows, and that she spent five months with him and he never showed affection to her like he did to his legitimate daughter.

It concerns me that Linda beats herself up so much over what she did with the father, her “great sin” which she is afraid to tell anyone, since neither of them were married at the time and her life as a slave made any sort of “proper” morality harder to follow.

After all, she wasn’t allowed to legally marry anyone she chose, slave marriages could be dissolved at the whim of the owner, and young girls were often dallied with by their owners before they had a chance to get properly married.

Chapter 40: The Fugitive Slave Law is passed, setting Linda and all other fugitive slaves on edge.  Then she’s alerted that somehow, Dr. Flint knows that she’s gone back to her old place, and is arranging to have her caught.

Mrs. Bruce died in childbirth, but Mr. Bruce has since remarried and had more children; the new Mrs. Bruce hates slavery, and since a replacement nurse could not be immediately found, she actually suggests that Linda take the baby with her.

Linda stays with the baby in the house of a senator, then in the country, until the coast is clear and she can return to her employer.

A wealthy and pro-slavery relative of Mrs. Bruce tells her she is violating the law and is she aware of the penalty?  She replies,

I am very well aware of it.  It is imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine.  Shame on my country that it is so!  I am ready to incur the penalty.  I will go to the state’s prison, rather than have any poor victim torn from my house, to be carried back to slavery.

Chapter 41: In 1850, Linda’s grandmother writes that Dr. Flint has died, leaving a “distressed family.”  She also writes, “Poor old man!  I hope he made his peace with God.”

Linda recalls that his crimes against her grandmother were worse than his crimes against her, and that she must be a better Christian than Linda if she can entirely forgive him.  Linda, on the other hand, still finds his memory odious even after he has died.

There are many things we are asked to forgive; forgiveness of abuse can be especially difficult, and can’t be asked lightly.  Mrs. Flint had buried several children, yet Linda saw no softening in her heart.  Instead, a letter from the South warns Linda that Mrs. Flint has declared Linda too valuable a slave for her daughter to lose.

Sure enough, Linda’s owner and her husband, Mr. & Mrs. (Emily) Dodge, soon arrive in town, and come to look for her.  But Mrs. Bruce has already veiled her and sent her off to a friend’s house….

It seems that Mr. Dodge, a Yankee, brought quite a lot of drama into the Flints’ lives, with violent fights between him and Emily’s brother, and she never actually got consent before marrying him.  Dr. Flint never forgave her.  Now they’re left without money or inheritance, so no wonder Mr. Dodge wants to find Emily’s valuable slave.

Linda is tired of running, refuses to pay for her freedom because she shouldn’t have to pay anyone for it, and is bitter that she can’t even go to church without risk.  She writes, “God forgive the black and bitter thoughts I indulged on that Sabbath day!  The Scripture says, ‘Oppression makes even a wise man mad;’ and I was not wise.”

But she flees yet again, going to New England.  Mrs. Bruce buys her freedom, even though Linda felt it was too much like slavery and would put her under obligation to Mrs. Bruce.  She is appalled that even in “the free city of New York” in the “19th century of the Christian religion,” women could be sold.

Yet she is grateful to Mrs. Bruce, and feels a heavy load lifted at last.  Back home she goes, without worry about who might see her.

In 1835, at the age of about 22, she fled her owners.  In 1852, at the age of 39, after nearly 20 years of being a fugitive, she is free.  Her story will be published 9 years later in 1861.

[2010 or 2011]

See entire review here.

 

Musings on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Part 3

 

Previous parts

Before Ellen leaves, Linda is able to see her and say good-bye.  But after this, she hears nothing for months; even Mr. Sands in Washington won’t respond to her letters asking what has become of Ellen.

A little girl in the family finally writes that Ellen is safely arrived, is welcome and eventually will go to school–but also that she’s to be the eldest daughter’s waiting maid.

Linda doesn’t know what to make of this.  Is this a temporary arrangement, or is she a slave again?  Is it possible to trust Mr. Sands, or has slavery perverted him, too?

In chapter 28, we read that slaves could not legally be married.  They would get the consent of their masters and be married by clergy, but it was not legally recognized and their masters could annul it at any time.

And if a master wanted a slave to sleep somewhere other than beside her husband, to perform her usual duties, he could require it.

Linda’s aunt was required to sleep on the floor near Mrs. Flint’s bedroom, and slept there through her own six pregnancies, summer and winter.  She was on-call to bring Mrs. Flint anything she needed during her own pregnancies, and tend to her babies at night.

This hard bed and lack of rest, after working all day long as housekeeper and waiting-maid, led to the premature loss of every one of her own six babies.

When Dr. Flint finally realized what this was doing to her, and that such a valuable slave could die, they let her sleep in her own room in an outhouse except when someone in the family was sick.  She had two more babies, but still, none lived.

Now, Aunt Nancy dies while Linda is in the hiding place.  The Flints are actually affected by her loss; Mrs. Flint even takes to her bed in grief.

But then Dr. Flint tries to use this grief to get Aunt Nancy’s mother, Linda’s grandmother, to get Linda to come home and take Aunt Nancy’s place.  But her grandmother replied,

“It was not I that drove Linda away.  My grandchildren are gone; and of my nine children only one is left.  God help me!”

After breaking her slave down with years of “cruel selfishness,” “incessant, unrequited toil, and broken rest,” Mrs. Flint now wants to make “a beautiful illustration of the attachment existing between slaveholder and slave”: She wants Aunt Nancy to be buried at the feet of her own spot in the Flint family burial-place.

Linda writes that “It had never occurred to Mrs. Flint that slaves could have any feelings.”  The clergyman suggests she consult Nancy’s mother first, and the mother wants her in the slaves’ graveyard with her own family.

After a “mighty grand funeral,” Nancy is buried, and Linda notes,

Northern travelers, passing through the place, might have described this tribute of respect to the humble dead as a beautiful feature in the ‘patriarchal institution’; a touching proof of the attachment between slaveholders and servants; and tenderhearted Mrs. Flint would have confirmed this impression, with handkerchief at her eyes.

We could have told them a different story.  We could have given them a chapter of wrongs and sufferings, that would have touched their hearts, if they had any hearts to feel for the colored people.

Chapter 29: Linda stayed in that hole for almost SEVEN YEARS: August 1835-June 1842.  Imagine having been in a cramped hole since 2003, getting wet during storms, only occasionally getting to come out and stretch your legs.  And the effects of being in there for so long, continued in her body ever afterwards.

Now, a chance arises finally for her and another escaped slave to flee in a ship.  Linda’s grandmother doesn’t want her to go–fearing the chance of seizure more than what being in the hole is doing to Linda–but then someone gets careless and Linda is at risk of being ratted out.  So even her grandmother tells her to leave.

In time it’s discovered that the suspected betrayer did not actually see Linda.  But for now, they have to assume she did, and Linda flees.

Chapter 30: And she’s out and off!  Off she goes with her friend Fanny on a ship headed to Philadelphia.

Chapter 31: She’s in Philadelphia.  Exercise and rubbing her limbs with salt water have nearly restored their use.  She’s taken in by a black minister and his wife, and they also find neighbors to take in Fanny.

She meets with members of anti-slavery societies, and things are going well for her and Fanny–until she goes on a train and discovers that blacks are not allowed in first-class cars for any money.

Chapter 32: Linda finds her daughter Ellen, but discovers that Mr. Sands did not emancipate her as he promised, but actually gave her to his cousin’s eldest daughter.  Ellen is supposed to be her waiting-maid when she grows up, so Ellen has not even been sent to school.

So Linda writes to Dr. Flint and his daughter, asking the price at which he would sell Linda so she can be free.  Only through her own freedom can she protect her children.  But instead he responds that she should go back and submit herself to her rightful owners, “and then any request I might make would be granted.”

Chapter 33: Linda’s health is much better, but her limbs still swell up when she does a lot of walking.  She finds a job as a nurse to a baby, which is supposed to last for a month, but her legs bother her so much (from going up and down stairs all the time) that she can no longer work.

Instead of firing her, Mrs. Bruce makes some changes to save Linda steps, and gets her a doctor.  Mrs. Bruce is kind and helps thaw Linda’s heart, but Mrs. Hobbs is reluctant to give up little Ellen, making Linda suspicious that she might sell Ellen if times get too hard.

So her distrust for white people begins to go away, but not completely.  But Linda’s brother William comes home from the sea, so they are finally reunited.

Chapter 34: It’s amazing when a bully of any type claims to have treated their target very well, basically playing the victim.  I’ve had this happen to me–with the bully claiming to have bent over backwards for me, even though they had been making my life miserable with covert and overt persecution and gaslighting–and here it is happening to Linda:

The girl who owns her has received her letter asking for permission to be sold; the girl’s brother writes back, saying how Linda had never been treated badly or like a slave, but as one of the family, so they thought she was above disgracing herself by running away.

Somehow the family has taken her letter to mean she wants to come “home,” and the brother writes how she will be received with open arms, with no resentment, and made happy, etc.

But Linda recognizes that the young boy could not have written this himself, and the disguised hand of Dr. Flint.  So she does not respond.  As she recounts,

“I did not return the family of Flints any thanks for their cordial invitation–a remissness for which I was, no doubt, charged with base ingratitude.”

I’ve seen the same thing myself, the bully making demands that cannot be met without psychologically destroying the target, then petulantly claiming that their olive branch was thrown back at them.

Her son Benny is sent to her, to her great joy.  Dr. Flint, meanwhile, has come North looking for her, but can’t find her, because she has heard about his visit and gone to Boston for the duration.

In the summertime, as a nurse she needs to take her employer’s baby outside for exercise, but Southerners are everywhere.  She writes,

“Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders, and I like one class of the venomous creatures as little as I do the other.  What a comfort it is, to be free to say so!”

Chapter 35: Unfortunately–and showing a detail that Margaret Mitchell got right–the North has segregation and prejudice, despite having no slavery.  Linda encounters it on a steamboat, in a cab, on a train, in various places.

On a train she gets put in a Jim Crow car.  Rather than sitting in a decent seat in a cab, she’d have to sit on top of the trunks in a truck.

As a servant her employer, Mrs. Bruce, could save her from some of these indignities, but she still finds “cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people.”

Finally, at a luxury hotel, she follows the other nurses–all white–into a long hall with her charge.  A man, who is in charge of ordering everything, points her to a chair; she sits down, but he says the baby is to sit there, while she stands behind the chair and feeds her.  Then she is to go to the kitchen for supper.

Linda sees the other nurses eyeing her “with a defiant look, as if my presence were a contamination,” even though many of them are only a shade lighter than she is (her parents were mixed race).

She says nothing, but picks up the child, goes to their room, and refuses to go back to the table.  Her defiance is not that of a drama llama, but quiet, polite and dignified–and thereby probably far more forceful than a rant or tirade.

Mr. Bruce has her meals sent to the room, but after a few days, the white waiters complain, “saying they were not hired to wait on negroes.”  The landlord wants Mr. Bruce to send her down to her meals, and “the colored servants of other boarders were dissatisfied because all were not treated alike.”

Linda really shows her mettle in the following:

My answer was that the colored servants ought to be dissatisfied with themselves, for not having too much self-respect to submit to such treatment; that there was no difference in the price of board for colored and white servants, and there was no justification for difference of treatment.

I staid a month after this, and finding I was resolved to stand up for my rights, they concluded to treat me well.  Let every colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be trampled under foot by our oppressors.

…And may we all stand up to our own bullies with such quiet dignity.

To be continued….

 

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