an autobiography by Harriet A. Jacobs:
[Review originally posted for my Facebook friends in late 2010 or 2011.]
Harriet A. Jacobs was a negro slave in the 19th century, using the fake name “Linda” for herself.
Page 40 is making me angry on Harriet’s behalf. After all the sexual harassment he’s made her put up with, and other psychological abuses as well, her master has refused to allow her to marry the free black man she loves.
She’s upset; he hits her; she cries, “I despise you!”
In response he says,
Do you think any other master would bear what I have borne from you this morning? Many masters would have killed you on the spot. How would you like to be sent to jail for your insolence?
And he accuses her of ingratitude for all his supposed “kindness and forbearance.”
Harriet, I’ve never been a slave, but I have been where you are. I just want to slap that slaveowner.
Some of us have truly done favors out of the kindness of our hearts, only to have those favors spat upon; we have a right to claim ingratitude. But this guy is the type who wants to make you think you owe him something so he can have control over you.
And appeals to these hypothetical “others,” the Grand Society who would treat you far worse for what you have supposedly done, to make you think you should be grateful for the “mild” way he’s abused you.
He’s “only” yelled and screamed at you. Or “only” hit you. Or “only” cussed at and belittled you for your horrible behavior. This guy is a real piece of work. 😛
And she has no one to go to for help, of course, since she’s his property.
Don’t you dare go and tell anybody how I’ve treated you. Don’t tell your mother I touched you like this. Or don’t tell the police I’m slapping you around.
Abusers of any stripe deserve to be brought into the light and their deeds exposed.
Here we have a real-life depiction of slavery, from a real-life slave. So incredibly different from the fictional Gone With the Wind, written at a time far removed from slavery, from the point of view of slave owners, even though it was based on stories told to Margaret Mitchell by relatives who lived during that time.
So when Mitchell writes that slavery was nowhere near as bad as the abolitionist propaganda, whom are you going to believe?
And here’s the meat of it: The slaveowner, Dr. Flint, says,
I will be lenient towards you, Linda. I will give you one more chance to redeem your character. If you behave yourself and do as I require, I will forgive you and treat you as I always have done; but if you disobey me, I will punish you as I would the meanest slave on my plantation.
Then he proceeds to forbid her even mentioning her love’s name again. And we know what he means by obeying him: Not only must she shut out of her life the one she wanted to marry, but we just know Dr. Flint is going to expect her to become his mistress.
Contradicting Gone With the Wind, this real-life slave writes on p. 49-52,
I could tell of more slaveholders as cruel as those I have described. They are not exceptions to the general rule.
I do not say there are no humane slaveholders. Such characters do exist, notwithstanding the hardening influences around them. But they are ‘like angels’ visits–few and far between.’…
I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as 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.
And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.
On pages 58 to 62, after she has become pregnant from Mr. Sands, a white friend of her family–hoping to so enrage Dr. Flint that he will sell her to her lover–Linda once again stands in front of her master after an estrangement.
He says that though she has been criminal towards him, he can pardon her if she obeys him. She says, “I have sinned against God and myself, but not against you.” In response, he curses her.
As the classic abuser, he claims that he has been lenient, that he might have whipped her to death. He says that her “mistress, disgusted by your conduct, forbids you to return to the house.”
Because, apparently, sleeping with a man she loves, after her master has forbidden her to marry, is just so disgusting, and because she deserves whatever she gets.
He says her “ingratitude chafes me beyond endurance. You turn aside all my good intentions towards you. I don’t know what it is that keeps me from killing you.”
Then he negotiates with a “friendly proposition” which is far more advantageous to him than to her: If she will cut off all communication with the father of her child, her master will “forgive” her “insolence and crime” and take care of her and her child; she must promise at once, and this is the last act of “mercy” he will show her.
Her lover is willing to buy her and take care of her child, which would be a far better state than the one she is in now, and Dr. Flint has cursed her and her child, so of course she scorns the “friendly proposition.”
He says that “a woman who had sunk to my level had no right to expect anything else. He asked, for the last time, would I accept his kindness? I answered that I would not.”
Very well, then take the consequences of your wayward course. Never look to me for help. You are my slave, and shall always be my slave. I will never sell you, that you may depend upon.
So her hopes are dashed because she refuses to give in to her master’s cruel demands. And, of course, her master considers it to be her fault, not his for making such unreasonable demands on her.
She is bedridden for some time. Forbidden to have any doctor but her master, she has no doctor at all; when her illness grows worse, he is sent for, but she screams as soon as he enters the room. So he leaves again.
She finally gives birth to a boy, who is premature–4 pounds–and both mother and child are sick for the following year. Yet he lives into his 30s, which is far more than we could have expected for a child like him of his time.
Dr. Flint looks after her health, and does not fail “to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.”
He sends her brother William to bring constant notes to her. Since the subject of his notes in the past has been the various ways she could please him sexually, she doesn’t need to tell us what these notes are about.
One day, she hides herself from Dr. Flint when he comes to see her. He leaves, sending William with a note demanding to see her, and she goes. He
demanded to know where I was when he called. I told him I was at home. He flew into a passion, and said he knew better. Then he launched out upon his usual themes,–my crimes against him, and my ingratitude for his forbearance.
The laws were laid down to me anew, and I was dismissed. I felt humiliated that my brother should stand by, and listen to such language as would be addressed only to a slave.
Because her brother, powerless to defend her, begins to weep for her, the doctor is irritated.
Just as with any abuser, because the third party–friend, family member–feels for the abused, in the eyes of the abuser he can do nothing right.
The master’s abuse of Linda now spills over onto her brother simply because he sees and recognizes the abuse. William is yelled at and put into jail for coming later than usual to the office.
William asks to be sold, which incenses his master, who says he was put there to reflect and has shown no evidence of repentance. Because his master can’t handle the office work without him, he lets him out, but “with many threats, if he was not careful about his future behavior.”
It is dangerous to show any sign of contempt or shock at an abuser’s behavior. I have seen for myself what can happen, and have been punished for it, so I feel for William as well as Linda.
The baby finally grows healthy after a year. Linda writes,
His father caressed him and treated him kindly, whenever he had a chance to see him.
He was not unwilling that he should bear his name; but he had no legal claim to it; and if I had bestowed it upon him, my master would have regarded it as a new crime, a new piece of insolence, and would, perhaps, revenge it on the boy.
O, the serpent of Slavery has many and poisonous fangs!
In Chapter XVI, Dr. Flint gives Linda a choice between a cottage for herself and her children–supposedly “merciful,” but she knows better, that there would be no escape from him there–or his son’s plantation and slavery for her children.
Typically putting the responsibility for his lack of anger management on other people, he claims that her willfulness drove him to be harsh with her before, and, “You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child.” (Note that Linda was already in her early 20s.)
She chooses the plantation. In the editor’s notes to the book, we read:
Norcom [Flint] was a loving and dominating husband and father. In his serious and sophisticated interest in medicine, his commitment as a physician, and his educated discourse, he appears unlike the villain Jacobs portrays.
But his humorlessness, his egoism, his insistently controlling relationships with his wife and children, and particularly with his daughters–for example his obdurate response to the disobedience of his beloved daughter Mary Matilda, mentioned in Chapter XLI–suggest the portrait Jacobs draws.
This impression is supported by his quarrelsomeness with his neighbors and his unforgiving fury against those he viewed as enemies. It is underscored by his admitted passionate responses to women. (p. 274)
Flint’s son, Mr. Flint, is no better. In fact, he says that his father should have “broke her in long ago.” He whips women and children slaves so much that the spirits of the mothers have been too broken to intervene.
Linda’s son was left behind due to illness; she was obliged to bring her daughter along, but was not allowed to take proper care of her. The poor little child was left alone.
Keep in mind that her brother was not even five, so she was no older than a toddler. Finally, Linda sent the child to her grandmother, and excused this to Mr. Flint by claiming the girl was sick.
But through all of this, Linda had a plan she would not disclose to anyone: of securing freedom for herself and her children.
Young Mr. Flint is about to get married. Linda writes,
I knew that the young wives of slaveholders often thought their authority and importance would be best established and maintained by cruelty; and what I had heard of young Mrs. Flint gave me no reason to expect that her rule over them would be less severe than that of the master and overseer.
Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving people on the face of the earth. That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or a dog.
The wife of old Dr. Flint is an example of someone who goes through the motions of piety, but has a hard heart. Even though Linda was in no way at fault for the attentions of her master, Mrs. Flint has been jealous of her, sometimes going into Linda’s room as she slept, suspecting Linda’s baby belongs to Dr. Flint, and having murderous thoughts toward her.
In fact, to Mrs. Flint, Linda’s pregnancy is proof that Linda has been sleeping with Dr. Flint, and she refuses to believe otherwise–even though the baby’s father is actually Mr. Sands. She threatens to kill Linda.
We must always check our jealousy, whether it has no basis in fact or we actually find our love in bed with someone else, lest it lead us into violent, sinful thoughts and deeds, and bar us from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, we read that Linda dreads the day’s dinner party. She is to wait on Dr. Flint and his wife along with the other guests. Mrs. Flint has not been to the plantation since Linda moved there, and Linda has not seen her face-to-face for five years; she
had no wish to see her now. She was a praying woman, and, doubtless, considered my present position a special answer to her prayers. Nothing could please her better than to see me humbled and trampled upon. I was just where she would have me–in the power of a hard, unprincipled master.
She did not speak to me when she took her seat at table; but her satisfied, triumphant smile, when I handed her plate, was more eloquent than words.
The old doctor was not so quiet in his demonstrations. He ordered me here and there, and spoke with peculiar emphasis when he said ‘your mistress.’
I was drilled like a disgraced soldier. When all was over, and the last key turned, I sought my pillow, thankful that God had appointed a season of rest for the weary.
You see how jealousy–and believing it to be justified, even when it’s not–causes ugly self-righteousness.
Mrs. Flint believes she has the proof that Linda has been sleeping with Dr. Flint, and lords it over her with great smugness; since the truth is quite different, she looks like a spiteful, vindictive shrew instead.
When Linda is forced to be servile to her, handing her a plate of food, Mrs. Flint shows that she considers it her due, that Linda deserves all she’s gotten, that Linda has been just terrible to her.
But Mrs. Flint has judged without true knowledge, without even trying to find out the truth. She is unapologetic for it. And that is true ugliness.
The wife of young Mr. Flint soon shows her colors. When the monthly slave rations of meat are handed out, a faithful, very old slave hobbles up to get his;
the mistress said he was too old to have any allowance; that when ni****s were too old to work, they ought to be fed on grass. Poor old man! He suffered much before he found rest in the grave.
Yet Scarlett O’Hara said that no one would treat their slaves the way the abolitionists and Northerners had represented…..
Young Mrs. Flint and Linda get along very well for a week. Then old Mrs. Flint comes over and has a long conference with young Mrs. Flint. Linda is allowed to leave the plantation “on one condition,” but old Mrs. Flint doesn’t want her to leave it at all.
“If she had trusted me, as I deserved to be trusted by her, she would have had no fears of my accepting that condition.”
Jealousy clouds our eyes and distorts our reason so that even the innocent seem guilty; it leads us to commit sinful offenses against others.
Young and old Mrs. Flint and old Dr. Flint decide to bring Linda’s children to her; Linda sees right through this, and knows the real reason is not to get her family back together, but to break them all in to “abject submission to our lot as slaves.”
A friend of Linda’s family visits the plantation, and innocently mentions to her that the children are coming; Linda writes that this information “nerved me to immediate action.”
In the middle of the night, Linda runs off. Her children are with her grandmother. She soon finds refuge in the home of a woman who owns slaves but is kind to them. Hidden away in a little attic, Linda can see Dr. Flint going to his office each day.
Thus far I had outwitted him, and I triumphed over it. Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants.
However, in revenge, Dr. Flint thrusts her brother William, her aunt and her two children into jail, swearing that her grandmother will never see them again until Linda is returned. Linda wants to go to them, get them freed, but William sends her a note begging her to stay put.
One day, Linda hears Dr. Flint and the constable in the house, and is terrified when her door opens. But it’s just her benefactress, telling her that Dr. Flint borrowed $500 to go to New York to find her. So for the moment, she is safe.
After Dr. Flint has spent quite a bit of money going on a wild goose chase to find Linda, and on jail costs for Linda’s brother and children, he decides to accept the offer of a slave trader–who is actually there on behalf of Mr. Sands, Linda’s lover. But Dr. Flint doesn’t know that Mr. Sands is involved. The slave trader then rushes to sell them to Mr. Sands, safely out of Dr. Flint’s hands.
Linda’s friends and relatives help her hide in various places, out of Dr. Flint’s hands, for months. Nobody else has any idea where she is, and she’s so well hidden that everyone thinks she’s long gone to the Free States.
She acknowledges that many slaves have had even rougher treatment than she did: cruelly overworked, branded, beaten, bruised, whipped, heel-strings cut, chained to a log while working, torn by bloodhounds.
Still, from street conversations she overhears from her hiding place underneath a roof, Dr. Flint is considered even by white people to be a “d**ned brute.”
Dr. Flint goes off to New York again to find Linda, comes back empty-handed, and when her little boy Benny asks if he found his mommy, threatens to cut off his head.
It’s terrible when someone is so used to raging and using his temper to control people that he (or she) will even scream at a child he thinks is somehow offending him.
Months and seasons pass, yet Linda still stays in her tiny hiding place, barely able to move, exposed to much of the weather, because no chance for safe escape has yet come. She gets very sick, and then her grandmother “broke down under the weight of anxiety and toil.”
Her grandmother is very popular in the neighborhood with the white women because of her baking business; now these women attend on her needs during her illness. Not to be outdone, old Mrs. Flint goes to see her as well, and makes a big show of being so condescending.
Linda’s son has just been badly bitten by a dog, and his wounds sewn up. When Mrs. Flint is informed of why Benny is lame, she says,
“I’m glad of it. I wish he had killed him. It would be good news to send to his mother. Her day will come. The dogs will grab her yet.”
Can you imagine such words from someone who claims to be Christian? and all because she imagined Linda to have designs on her husband, when the truth was she did not?
Linda finally gets some good news: Her grandmother recovers.
Linda’s lover–whom she hasn’t spoken to in a few years–is elected to Congress as the local Whig candidate, despite Dr. Flint’s attempts to turn voters against him. Linda finds a way to get his attention and plead with him to free her children. He promises to do so, and to look for a way to buy her as well.
Linda has been living scrunched up in this tiny part of her grandmother’s house for several years now. She arranges for two letters written by her to be carried up to and mailed from New York, to Dr. Flint and her grandmother. She claims to be living at a certain address in Boston. Her grandmother knows about the ruse.
Dr. Flint goes to her grandmother with the letter addressed to her, and reads it to her–only it’s not Linda’s letter. It’s actually a fake letter he wrote, saying that Linda regrets running away and wants to return. Dr. Flint wants to send Linda’s uncle to find her, but he doesn’t want to go.
Dr. Flint prefers not to go, either, since the laws in Massachusetts make it a difficult place to retrieve a runaway slave. He writes to the mayor of Boston, but gets no response.
Meanwhile, after almost 5 years of living cramped in that tiny dark hole between the slanted roof and the inside wall, Linda is in danger of becoming permanently crippled. So she begins going down to the storeroom for a few hours every morning.
She passes over the years so quickly in her writing, but imagine how long and grueling they must have been for her! She can only hear her children’s voices, not see them or cuddle them or kiss them goodnight.
In her hiding place, she is so cramped she can barely move, has to stay in bed, and is exposed to heat and cold. She suffers illness because of this, and now is in danger of losing the use of her limbs permanently.
Yet her friends and family still have found no way for her to safely escape.
Linda’s former lover, Mr. Sands–after she’s been in the hiding place for several years–has now gotten married to somebody else. I wonder if it broke her heart, but she says nothing about this.
Instead, she wonders if he’ll still keep his promise to free her children, especially now that her brother William, his servant, has gotten his freedom while they traveled up north.
William soon writes to his family that Mr. Sands always treated him kindly, but he always wanted to be free. Mr. Sands is a bit miffed, though not bitter or resentful, since he planned to set him free in five years anyway. But William knew plans could change, and wanted to take his chance while he could.
Linda records a longer note for Mr. Sands, including good wishes, God’s blessings for his kindness, begging forgiveness, etc. William’s own record of the note says, “Sir–I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacobs [his real name].” I especially love how he signs it.
Dr. Flint’s family heard about this, of course, and laughed.
Mrs. Flint made her usual manifestations of Christian feeling, by saying, “I’m glad of it. I hope he’ll never get him again. I like to see people paid back in their own coin.
“I reckon Linda’s children will have to pay for it. I should be glad to see them in the speculator’s hands again, for I’m tired of seeing those little ni—rs march about the streets.”
Such a spiteful woman–I hope she plagued Dr. Flint’s heart out.
Mrs. Flint’s spite and vengeance know no bounds: She decides to tell the new Mrs. Sands who is the father of Linda’s children (thereby stirring up trouble and jealousy in the Sands household as well as her own).
She also wants to tell her “what an artful devil I was; that I had made a great deal of trouble in her family; that when Mr. Sands was at the north, she didn’t doubt I had followed him in disguise, and persuaded William to run away.”
It’s a clear case of the bully claiming to be the victim and engaging in a little character assassination.
Mr. Sands beats her to it, however. He and his wife meet little Benny in the street, he tells her he’s the father of Benny and Ellen and that the mother is dead, and now she wants to see them.
She and her sister want to adopt the children, but Linda is so scarred by slavery that she trusts neither of them; she fears that they would eventually sell the children if they fell on hard times.
Linda sends a message through her grandmother to Mr. Sands that she is not dead and wants them freed; he says they are indeed free, but they’d be better off in the north, because Dr. Flint is saying they still belong to his young daughter, who was not old enough to consent to the sale.
So they send Ellen to live with Mr. Sands’ relatives in Long Island, and go to school, with Benny going to the North with his uncle soon after. Mrs. Flint, of course, is not happy.
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.
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]