If you prick us, do we not bleed? -- Shylock, The Merchant of Venice
Like Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the black slave women are dehumanized by the other characters in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and Harriet A. Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Sexually harassed by their white masters, these slave women are forbidden to express the human emotion of love. Pressured into a shamed motherhood, they cannot love their children in the same ways that a white mother can. Moreover, slave women are treated like chattels. The black women in Browning and Jacobs’ works are oppressed sexually, forced into unwanted motherhoods, and stripped of their identities. Yet, because they face these cruelties with courage and dignity, these black slaves emerge as heroines of their own fates.
According to her white owners, a black woman in bondage not only has no rights to love, but is incapable of loving. In Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, the black narrator speaks of her love affair with a black man, but she is brief in its description because it is a forbidden act. The narrator remains anonymous throughout Browning’s poem, for to be named is to have power and to have an identity. She sings her lover’s name, showing that enslavement cannot prevent her from loving or from giving a fellow slave an identity. The narrator and her lover meet in secret, but their furtiveness is seen in a positive light since their commitment to love one another is strengthened by their piety: “We were two to love and two to pray” (86). Although they try to have faith in God, they are alienated...
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...ving their children. Furthermore, they are able to find forgiveness in their hearts even though they have been stripped of their humanity. Like the alienated Shylock in Shakespeare’s play, Linda and the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” will bleed if they are pricked. Indeed, these slave women have bled, both physically and emotionally. These wounds can only heal when they begin to stand up for their rights as human beings, so that eventually they will “cease to be trampled under foot by [their] oppressors” (Jacobs, 177).
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”. 1850. Correspondence Course Notes: ENGL 205*S Selected Women Writers I, Spring-Summer 2003, pp. 51-58. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University, 2003.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. London: Harvard University Press, 1987.
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