Saturday, February 20, 2016

Quoting Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

As part of my series of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl posts, I'd like to share my favorite quotes.  These are a few of the moments a sense of truth and/or emotion struck me.  Of course, out of the many residing in the narrative itself.
So on to the favorite quotes:
This one is the opening of Chapter VI, titled The Jealous Mistress.
“I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered among the slaves of America.  I would rather drudge out my life on a cotton plantation, till the grave opened to give me rest, than to live with an unprincipled master and a jealous mistress.  The felon’s home in a penitentiary is preferable.  He may repent, and turn from the error of his ways, and so find peace; but it is not so with a favorite slave.  She is not allowed to have any pride of character.  It is deemed a crime in her to wish to be virtuous.”
Slave narratives drive a sympathetic truth, and Jacobs’ opening gave ground to hers.  In the opening quote, she compares a slave's life to other demoralizing circumstances.  And how the latter appears more suitable.  Yet, she also draws a field slave’s existence to a slave caught by the lustful attention of her master.  And for good reason.  Jacobs’ autobiography reveals that level of oppressive torment in detail.  Beginning with her awareness of her bought morals.  Which she isn't willing to give up. 
Hopelessness charges her opening, but the sincerity and intelligence of Jacobs' voice says otherwise.
Further in Chapter VI
“Reader, I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes.  I am telling you the plain truth.  Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, ‘full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.’  Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders.  The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home.  To what disappointments are they destined!  The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows.  Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household.  Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness.”
It's all twisted.  The South wanted to impress Northerners on how useful and necessary slavery was.  Meanwhile, willing to put out a bounty on a runaway slave.  And one with illusions of finding asylum in the North.  Where they found themselves captured and returned by Northerners for profit.  Additionally, Northerners were sending their daughters south to marry slave owners, for the status.  And of course money.  Everyone was taking advantage of this system.  Jacobs wanted that illusion in itself to be 100% clear. 

 The following passage comes from chapter VIII, What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North.  I love how authentic and intimate Jacobs’ share this…
“Slaveholders pride themselves upon being honorable men; but if you were to hear the enormous lies they tell their slaves, you would have small respect for their veracity.  I have spoken plain English.  Pardon me.  I cannot use a milder term.  When they visit the north, and return home, they tell their slaves of the runaways they have seen, and describe them to be in the most deplorable condition.  A slaveholder once told me that he had seen a runaway friend of mine in New York, and that she besought him to take her back to her master, for she was literally dying of starvation; that many days she had only one cold potato to eat, and at other times could get nothing at all.  He said he refused to take her, because he knew her master would no thank him for bringing such a miserable wretch to his house.  He ended by saying to me, ‘This is the punishment she brought on herself for running away from a kind master.’”
I took total umbrage to this–just as Jacobs and any self-aware slave would.  But I also find a sense of pride in Jacobs' study.  Slave owners understood beatings weren’t enough to break a slave’s will for freedom.  Or, at the least, some wouldn’t completely bend.  So slave owners used fear tactics to keep slaves (most in the favorite position of Jacobs) in check.  They had to attack them psychologically.  While most likely realizing they would never get into the head of a slave.  Which was unnerving when you never knew whether your breakfast contained poison.
“Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters.  Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings?  What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors?  I admit that the black man is inferior.  But what is it that makes him so?  It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.  They do the work.”
We think slavery ended in 1865, but instead it took on another form.  The subjugation of the black man continued.  He remained the one building and constructing while oppressed.  And I can't see Jacobs' observation–from so long ago–ever actually dissolving.
From Chapter IX, Sketches of a Neighboring Slaveholders
“If a slave resisted being whipped, the bloodhounds were unpacked, and set upon him, to tear his flesh from his bones.  The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman.  He also boasted the name and stand of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower.” 
“In such cases the infant is smothered [Jacobs is speaking of child born from white women by slaves], or sent where it is never seen by ny who know its history.  But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market.  If they are girls, I had indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny.”
Chapter X, A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl’s Life…
“But, O, yet happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!  If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects have been blighted by slavery.  I want to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.  I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I become reckless in my despair.”
Chapter XIII, The Church and Slavery…
“After the alarm caused by Nat Turner’s insurrection had subsided, the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters…”
Yet another window into how slave owners controlled.  This time through their religious beliefs.  It's a reminder that Christianity isn’t indigenous to black America's ancestry.  It’s a religion brought to us by white colonizers and oppressors.
Chapter XVIII
“…Who can blame slaves for being cunning?  They are constantly compelled to resort to it.  It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants.”
Chapter XXIII, Still in Prison
“Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men.  She was a slave, the wet nurse of her mistress’s children.  For some trifling offence her mistress ordered her to be stripped and whipped.  To escape the degradation and the torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death. 
Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of many such facts as these, for they were of frequent occurrence in every Southern State.  Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was ‘a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave.’”
Chapter XXVII, New Destination for the Children…
“I tried to put away from me the painful thought that such a foul wrong could have been done to us.  I said to myself, ‘Surely there must be some justice in man;’ then I remembered, with a sigh, how slavery prevented all the natural feelings of the human heart.  It gave me a pang to look on my light-hearted boy.  He believed himself free; and to have him brought under the yoke of slavery, would be more than I could bear.  How I longed to have him safely out of the reach of its power.”

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