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Slavery, in my eyes, is an institution that has always been ridiculed on behalf of the physical demands of the practice, but few know the extreme mental hardships that all slaves faced. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs writes autobiographically about her families' and her personal struggles as a maturing "mullatto" child in the South. Throughout this engulfing memoir of Harriet Jacobs life, this brave woman tells of many trying times to keep dignity, family, and religion above all else.
In the life of slaves, daily routines greatly depended on the gender of the slave. A male slave was, who was old enough, was usually found laboring in the field under the hot sun, while female slaves were obligated to do household work, sew, or watch over their master's children. Often times, the young slave girl is ordered to do petty things around the household, like fetching drinks for their masters, or cleaning up after dinner, but as they age, their responsibilities increase greatly. While it seems that men of slavery had the most demanding jobs of this time, my opinion has been swayed by tales of this book. Men were required to work from dawn to dusk, and do not get me wrong, that is an amazing feat, but they could also rest at night because they had no other responsibilities, all the while the women would work all day in the household, tend to their biological family, if they had not been separated, and then often times go back to work in the house until the wee hours of the night, waiting on the master and mistress' every beckoned call. Women of slavery were commonly called upon to nurse their mistresses' children through infancy so that the mother was not troubled in her sleep by her child. These women would often be found sleeping on the floor at the entry of their slaveholders' bedroom, easily awakened and ready to serve the child's every wish. Jacobs speaks of her Aunt Nancy who held this position for many years, and it was obvious that the needs of the white child and mother greatly out-weighed that of the black mother and child. Jacobs recalls, " Until one midnight she was forced to leave, to give premature birth to a child.
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Throughout slavery, Africans all throughout the country were forced to become unattached to their families as much as possible, simply for fear of being hurt. Kinship was hard to hold onto as a slave because of the unsympathetic and uncaring ways of slave masters. Husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and anyone else close to you could be sold into another state on any given day. The most heart wrenching day for slaves, was New Year's Day. On New Year's Day, or Hiring Day, as slave traders called it, traders would come to the plantations to buy slaves to sell to other slaveholders. Jacobs describes this day by writing, "To the slave mother New Year's day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns." One cannot easily relate with this feeling, but it is easy to imagine. The loss of everyone that matters to you in a world where no one but these people cared for you, that is quite an empty soul.
Many people see slavery as a physically eroding way of life, but a very well kept secret is the sexual tensions that engulfed probably every semi-attractive female slave over the age of 14, and most slaveholders of the era. Harriet Jacobs speaks of her master "whispering foul words in her ear," at just the age of fifteen. Masters wanted to have their way with their slaves that they found attractive, and most of the time their desires were easily fulfilled. This common occurrence on plantations all throughout the south greatly tested the will of young female slaves. Many slaves of this time were very religious because they simply had nothing else to look forward to but the afterlife. When slaves were violated by their masters, they lost hope that God would forgive them for their sins, but hoped that he would understand the horrible circumstances they had been placed under. Unfortunately there was nothing that the poor, young women could do to put a stop to this brutality because they would be punished if one victimizing word left their mouth, and all the master would have to do is deny the entire thing because his word was so much more likely to be believed than that of a slave. How frustrating.
Loss of dignity was not the only consequence of masters and their slaves having sexual relations. Eventually the Master's wives began catching onto the looks and change of treatment that their husbands began displaying towards a particular servant. This created a lot of tension between wives and lovers on the plantation, and usually within the household. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs talks about the strains that were put on her relationship with her mistress because of a situation of this nature. She writes, "I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I was placed. I could not blame her."
While slaveholders were abusing their power and taking advantage of young slaves, these sinful acts were naturally resulting in the birth of many fair skinned slaves in the south. Immorally, plantation owners would often sell their very own children to other slave owners for profit. Jacobs recalls, "I shuddered to think of being the mother of children that should be owned by my old tyrant. I knew that as soon as a new fancy took him, his victims were sold far off to get rid of them; especially if they had children. I had seen several women sold, with his babies at the breast. He never allowed his offspring by slaves to remain long in sight of himself and his wife." This was common in all slavery ridden societies because the Slaveholders could not stand to have their name dishonored because of someone suspecting that all of the "mullatto" children frolicking on his property were his own offspring. This was even relevant in Harriet's, or should I say Linda's life with her two children, just not quite to the same extent. Harriet gave birth to two children, fathered by a milder, semi-moral slaveholder, Mr. Sands and she saw the unanticipated deprivation of their children's rights and best interests by their father. This conversation between Harriet and her daughter depicts the resentment of illegitimate children to slaveholders.
"But my child, I want you to know about your father."
"I know all about it, mother," she replied; "I am nothing to my father, and he is nothing to me. All my love is for you. I was with him five months in Washington, and he never cared for me. He never spoke to me as he did his little Fanny. I knew all the time he was my father, for Fanny's nurse told me so; but she said I must never tell anybody, and I never did. I used to wish he would take me in his arms and kiss me, as he did Fanny; or that he would sometimes smile at me, as he did at her. I thought if he was my own father, he ought to love me. I was a little girl then, and didn't know any better. But now I never think anything about my father. All my love is for you."
It is easy to see from this excerpt from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the emotional struggles associated with being a slave child, and especially a slave child whose father was their master.
Obviously there is nothing good to say about slavery. It is a practice that was demonic, satanic, and other things that cannot be described on paper. After reading this Autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, it is hard for me not to sympathize more with the Female slave than the Male slave. Females were taken advantage of, destroyed morally and emotionally, and then often times ripped from their only possession, their family. It is easy to say that I now have a much broader and in-depth knowledge of the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.