Harriet Jacobs’ Account of Sexual Abuse

By: Kyle Laguerre

Harriet Jacobs was born a black enslaved person, but eventually managed to escape to freedom.  In her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the chapters titled “The Trials of Girlhood” and “The Jealous Mistress” are significant because of the attention it brings to the commodification and exploitation of enslaved women’s sexuality.   While some narratives mention sexual abuse, they tend to leave out the details from the enslaved women’s perspective. This tends to happen because many of these accounts are either taken from the male perspective or were too painful for female authors to recount in full detail.  Jacobs’ narrative is unique because it provides a first person account into the events leading to the sexual abuse of enslaved women and how social dynamics affected its occurrence.  She goes on to describe these occurrences as such:

“She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse” (Jacobs 45-46)

This account shows how young enslaved girls lost their innocence far too early just from bearing witness to the sexual abuse that would take place around them. As a result many enslaved women learned how to use their sexuality to their advantage. These advantages ranged from leniency when it came to work and the higher probability that they could keep their children especially if they happened to be father by the slave master.  In Sarah Sherman’s analysis of Jacobs’ narrative she states “The ideology of woman’s innate “piety, purity, submis- siveness and domesticity” could be a significant weapon against male aggression, but it also opened new areas of vulnerability” (170). She is saying that through the submission of the enslaved women’s sexuality they could use that to their own advantage against the men who enslave them.  Jacobs actually gained the ability to read by entertaining the sexual advances of Dr. Flint, the man who had enslaved her, which she recounts stating:

“One day he caught me teaching myself to write. He frowned, as if he was not well pleased, but I suppose he came to the conclusion that such an accomplishment might help to advance his favorite scheme. Before long, notes were often slipped into my hand. (Jacobs 49-50)

 

 

A visit from old mistress

A Visit From Old Mistress:  This painting was created by Winslow Homer in 1876, over a decade after the conclusion of the American Civil War.  Through the painting Homer intended to reflect the relationship between slave women and their former master, now mistress.  This piece displays the lasting effects of the structural power dynamic that took place during slavery. While these women are technically free and employed by the mistress the same oversight occurred during slavery still takes place.  The situation in painting relates to the Trials of Girlhood and the Jealous Mistress chapters in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, because both highlight how slave women found solace in each other and how the women of the free households would often keep tabs on them, often fearing them as sexual competition.

While the toleration of sexual advances might have granted leniency in non-sexual ways from the men in the households, enslaved women gained the scorn of their wives and mistresses in turn.  Jacobs was not outwardly forced to participate in sexual behavior, but was consistently harassed by Dr. Flint.  This was mainly because Flint wanted to save face around his wife and the people they had enslaved, especially since Jacobs was closer in age to his own children. Concerning relations between the women they enslaved, saving face was not uncommon among many slave masters.  While it was frowned upon, it was such a common practice that many mistresses would take it out on the enslaved women, despite the fact the vast majority were unwilling participants.  Jacobs describes this hypocrisy stating:

“The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage” (Jacobs 45)

Overall Adrienne Davis states it best when she says “The political economy of slavery systemically expropriated black women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity for white pleasure” (105).  This systemic abuse created a damaging lasting effect on the way black women were perceived sexually.  Slave narratives like Jacobs’ are so important because they dismantle the negative perceptions surrounding black women by showing how they have been victims for generations.


Bibliography

Jacobs, Harriet A. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin.” Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press80 (1987): 44-58.

Sherman, Sarah Way. “Moral Experience in Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”.” NWSA Journal 2, no. 2 (1990): 167-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316015.

Davis, Adrienne. “‘Don’t Let Nobody Bother Yo’Principle’: The Sexual Economy of American Slavery.” Sister circle: Black women and work (2002): 103-27.

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