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