Musings on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Part 1
[Review originally posted for my Facebook friends in late 2010 or 2011. At last count in February 2015, this page on my website has received nearly 2000 hits.]
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.
Or don’t go crying to your friends/husband/ boss/teacher about how I’m beating you down verbally or physically, because I don’t need the headache….
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.