A prevalent belief during the Enlightenment, a time of great learning and science, was that Africans were an inhumane species, only fit for slavery. Race determined slavery, it was treated as a biological essence that accounted for unbridgeable cultural differences. Race also determined the “whiteness” or “otherness” of an individual (Blevins-Faery 10).The differences Europeans observed in Africans left them to believe African cultures were inferior, attributing the differences to skin color. To counter the idea that slaves were an inferior species, ex-slaves began to write narratives about experiences, proving they were humanly equals to whites. Harriet Jacobs was such a writer, she was an ex-slave who escaped north after years in hiding. She argues slaves are not irreconcilably different from whites and that slavery corrupts society. Race is not an essence but a text, it is constructed using “discursive practices”, such as stereotyping, to create an inferior “dark other” to the white standard; slave narratives similar to Jacobs’s seek to dismantle the idea of race as biological by writing about experiences to counter stereotyping, eliminating the preconception that blacks are naturally inferior to whites (11).
During the Enlightenment, to be human, a man must be reasonable. To have reason, a man must understand the European arts and sciences and be literate. Writing was to the Europeans “… the most salient repository of genius the visible sign of reason itself” (Gates 10). When Europeans first encountered Africans, they did not have a writing system and obviously did not have the same language, religion, or view of art and science. Therefo...
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...151). If race standards were biological they would be permanent, not varying by location. A text is made to fit ideas of a particular society. If race were biological it would be evident from the moment of birth, however it is not. Jacobs describes a white girl happily playing with her half black sister, “I saw them embracing each other and heard their joyous laughter” (28). The girls did not know the concept of race, they only saw one another as human. They did not see race, as society had not taught them to see it yet. Race is an invented concept, perpetuated by stereotyping and ignorance. Race can be overcome through talking and writing, which leads to cultural understanding. The slave narratives such as Jacobs’s were crucial to the abolishment of slavery and continue to inspire others to dissect the myth that is race to create a more understanding society.
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