There are two reasons that explain the tribulations that Harriet Jacobs went through in her life. Foremost, there is her being deemed black. Secondly, there is her being a member of the female gender. In this essay, I will show that her troubles are more attributable to her perceived race rather than her gender.
She faces all the following problems due to her race: her being a slave is wholly attributable to her being black; Dr. Flint obliterates Jacobs’ hopes of being freed by her lover; she is emotionally distressed after sacrificing her purity to hurt Dr. Flint; she suffers greatly on account of her son’s status as a slave; she is forced to live in hiding for seven years to escape Dr. Flint’s cruelty; Mr. Sands reneges on his promise to free her children; and, she eventually finds out that even in the North, she is maltreated on account of her race just like in the South.
To begin with, the root cause of Jacobs’ suffering is her status as a slave. Most importantly, her being a slave is wholly attributable to her being black. She would have had a chance at freedom in childhood but a promise made to her dying mother by her mistress was not kept. On her mother’s death, Jacobs had been left in the care of her mother’s mistress.
The mistress had promised to never let Jacobs and her siblings suffer, a promise she had made during the last moments of Jacobs’ mother: “on her deathbed her mistress promised her children should never suffer for a thing” (14). This promise to look after Jacobs and her siblings was kept, up to her mistresses’ death.
Instead of freeing 12 year old Jacobs, she bequeaths her to the five year old daughter of her sister. Jacobs realizes that a promise made to a dying slave is not at all binding and that her fate is solely the business of her masters. On this realization, she harbors great bitterness towards her dead mistress (16).
This act of disloyalty by her mistress was not carried out because Jacobs or her mother were women. Rather, it was for the reason that they were black, and therefore slaves, that her mother’s mistress found no reason to live up to her words. This would lead to Jacobs’ troubles at the hand of Dr. Flint and in her bid to escape from the south.
Secondly, Dr. Flint obliterates Jacobs’ hopes of being freed by her lover. When Jacobs falls in love with a free black man, Dr. Flint refuses to let her marry him saying that he would only allow her to get married if it were to one of his salves.
He forbids her from seeing or speaking to her lover and declares that he would shoot him if he ever came to seek her in the doctor’s premises (63). This callous behavior by Dr. Flint could be explained by the fact that he was sexually attracted to Jacobs. He refuses to sell to Jacobs her free lover on the pretext that Jacobs belonged to his daughter and not to him.
It could be argued that denying Jacobs her right to marry could be attributable to the fact that she was a woman, and because Dr. Flint was interested in her. However, it is purely because Jacobs was black, and therefore a slave, that Dr. Flint was able to exercise such power over her destiny. He refused to sell her off thereby ruining her chance at freedom and love. For this reason, Jacobs would suffer greatly; in the Flint household, and later in attempting to relocate to the northern states.
Jacobs is emotionally distressed after sacrificing her purity to hurt Dr. Flint. Jacobs decides to offer herself to Mr. Sands in order to have a basis to refuse Dr. Flint’s offer to build her a house. In an apparent change of tact in his pursuit of Jacobs, Dr. Flint tells her that he would build her a house (82).
In another bid to free herself from Dr. Flint’s control, she sleeps with a single white lawyer, Mr. Sands. Her hope was that Dr. Flint would be so angry with her that he would decide to sell her off at which point Mr. Sands would buy her. She however becomes pregnant with Mr. Sands’ child in the process.
When Dr. Flint finally orders her to move to the new house, she reveals to him that she was expecting a child by another man (87). While Dr. Flint does not take the news well, as she had hoped, she finds out that her actions have an even greater effect on her. She felt that she had to sacrifice her purity as a woman in order to free herself from Dr. Flint. She is pained by the feeling that she had betrayed her family and greatly humiliated herself.
Her grandmother, thinking that Jacobs had slept with her master, throws her out of her house (88). It is essentially because Jacobs is deemed black, and therefore a slave, that she felt that the only way to free herself from Dr. Flint was to give her purity away to a man she did not love. She is forced to result to using her femininity to earn something that was rightfully hers: freedom.
Jacobs suffers greatly on account of her son’s status as a slave. Born to a black woman, he was bound to end up as a slave himself. Even if Mr. Sands was to accept him as his child, he still would have been legally incapable of freeing him from Dr. Flint. Her mother on the other hand, was utterly helpless in this situation.
It is the natural instinct of the mother to protect her child. Jacobs was however incapable of doing anything to change things for her son and this was the source of great inner pain for her. This feeling of inadequacy was apparently so strong that she even prayed that her son die rather than live to end up as a salve: “death is better than slavery” (54).
The extremity of her wish is evidence enough of the psychological torture that her inadequacy must have signified. It also signifies her belief that his son’s being black was equivalent to slave status. Had she been a member of the white race, she would have been more empowered as to be capable of directing her son’s life. As such, it is purely for the reason that she was black, and therefore a slave, that she has to endure such pain on account of her son’s fate.
Because she has no other way of escaping Dr. Flint’s cruelty, Jacobs is forced to live in hiding for seven years. She lives in a hidden attic in her grandmother’s house which let in neither light nor sufficient air. Owing to its low ceiling, she has to stay seated because she otherwise would hit her head had she attempted to stand (174).
She had to live without human company but for hasty correspondence through an opening with her grandmother, aunt or uncle during the night (174). She is tormented by rats and mice and has to endure the bites of “hundreds of little red insects, fine as a needles point” for weeks on end (175).
The compartment would get incredibly hot during the day since she only had shingles to protect her from direct sunlight (173). She is totally removed from society and it is only the sight of her children and engaging herself with sewing that helps retain her sanity. She does all this in order to free herself from Dr. Flint. By imprisoning herself in that small compartment, she feels that she is free from the control of her master.
She subjects herself to physical discomfort for the sake of psychological freedom. It is as a result of the relationship between slaves, a status that depended on one’s race, and their masters that Dr. Flint was capable of having such great power over Jacobs. Thus, Jacobs suffering in this respect, essentiality boils down to her being black, rather than the fact that she is female.
For the reason that Jacobs was black, and therefore a slave, Mr. Sands did not feel compelled to keep his word regarding her children’s freedom. On the day of reunion of Jacobs and her daughter in Washington, she learns that Mr. Sands had reneged on his promise to her children.
Instead, he bequeathed Jacob’s daughter to his eldest daughter as her maid (253). It is then that she realized that she was incapable of protecting her children if she herself was not free. Even though she says that she at times felt free, she lived in a state of insecurity for both her own sake and that of her children (253). It was a hurtful affair for her to realize that Mr. Sands had been dishonest with her.
This is especially so when she realizes that it is purely due to her being black that Mr. Sands found it so easy to break his promise. It is also of great significance that Ellen, is in the same situation as her mother even though they are both in the North. At the same time, Jacobs feels great helplessness in the face of her daughter’s suffering. She suffers all these tribulations due to her status as a slave.
Jacobs finds out that even in the North, she is maltreated on account of her race just like in the South. This is in spite of the fact that racism and slavery are differentiated in the north. When Jacobs travels to Albany with Mrs. Bruce in a steamboat, she is asked to leave her table by a fellow colored man (264).
This is despite the fact that other nurses, albeit white, were allowed to sit and have tea with their mistresses. It becomes clear that her race has been her primary disadvantage since the white nurses would have been victims of discrimination too. From this perspective, I fully believe that her being deemed black has the most blame for the persecutions she endures rather than her being a woman
Finally, it is obvious that part of Jacobs’ suffering is attributable to her gender. However, as shown above, her race, which incidentally dictates her status as a slave in society, is more influential in contributing towards it. The autobiography should therefore be read, foremost, as reporting the afflictions of a slave and then, secondly, as the story of a girl who is a slave.
Harriet, Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Boston: Phillips and Samson, 1861. Print.