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Essay/Term paper: Women in slavery

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Gender

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The Perils of Slavery



A recurring theme in, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is Harriet Jacobs"s reflections on what slavery meant to her as well as all women in bondage. Continuously, Jacobs expresses her deep hatred of slavery, and all of its implications. She dreads such an institution so much that she sometimes regards death as a better alternative than a life in bondage. For Harriet, slavery was different than many African Americans. She did not spend her life harvesting cotton on a large plantation. She was not flogged and beaten with regular accurance like many slaves. She was not actively kept from illiteracy. Actually, Harriet always was treated relatively well. She performed most of her work inside and was rarely ever punished, at the request of her licentious master. Furthermore, she was taught to read and sew, and to perform other tasks associated with a "ladies" work. Outwardly, it appeared that Harriet had it pretty good, in light of what many slaves had succumbed to. However, Ironically Harriet believes these fortunes were actually her curse. The fact that she was well kept and light skinned as well as being attractive lead to her victimization as a sexual object. Consequently, Harriet became a prospective concubine for Dr. Norcom. She points out that life under slavery was as bad as any slave could hope for. Harriet talks about her life as slave by saying, "You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another." (Jacobs p. 55).

In the earliest part of Harriet"s life the whole idea of slavery was foreign to her. As all little girls she was born with a mind that only told her place in the world was that of a little girl. She had no capacity to understand the hardships that she inherited. She explains how her, "heart was as free from care as that of any free-born white child."(Jacobs p. 7) She explains this blissful ignorance by not understanding that she was condemned at birth to a life of the worst kind oppression. Even at six when she first became familiar with the realization that people regarded her as a slave, Harriet could not conceptualize the weight of what this meant. She say"s that her circumstances as slave girl were unusually fortunate, because after her mother passed away she was left with Margaret Horniblow, whom Harriet was clearly fond of. Mistress Horniblow was the one who taught her to read and spell, and treated Harriet like she was her own daughter. Mistress never worked Harriet to hard or prevented her from having fun as little white girls did. Mrs. Horniblow kept her promise that Harriet should never suffer from anything. So, under the care of her mistress, Harriet"s life was a happy one. Still the affects of slavery had not taken hold of her. This went on until her mistress died and Harriet for the first time was exposed to her value as property. It is clear that Harriet Jacob"s has spent the better part of her life trying to reconcile the feelings she has towards her first mistress. On one hand, Harriet loves her mistress deeply for the way she treated Harriet. On the other hand, how could someone that apparently cared for her so much leave her with such an unpredictable fate? It seems that Harriet"s ignorance of her status as property is challenged greatly at this point. In Harriet"s retrospect as an older woman she seems to not have feelings of love and affection to her mistress but does have appreciation for the knowledge that she gained from her.

The next stage of Harriet"s life contains the realization of what slavery is. It was at this time that her true education began. The days of happy frolic were gone, the anguish of slavery was all that lie ahead. Everywhere, Harriet looked there was atrocities happening. Before, when she lived with Margaret Horniblow, she was taken care of. Now all she had was her grandmother. By the time she had spent a couple of years with the Norcom"s (Flint"s) several people that were close to her had died. At the time of these death"s she was obviously very mournful. She even rebelled against God, who had taken her bother parents as well as her loving mistress. However as time went on and the more she experienced the evils of bondage her view of death began to change. This first change came about when her grandmother suggested of her parent"s fate by saying, "Who knows the ways of God? Perhaps they have been kindly taken from the evil days to come."(Jacobs p. 10) She was further subjected to this kind of outlook on death, when she witnessed a dying slave girl giving birth to a white baby, beg for the Lord to come and take her. The belief that death brought peace and freedom seemed to be a common sentiment among slaves who lived such an unrewarding and oppresses life. Many of them had very little to live for. Whereas, the conflict in Harriet"s mind must have been very divisive, because she valued so much about life. If it wasn"t for her Grandmother"s presence and the joy and self-determination she brought to Harriet"s life then maybe accepting death as a blessing may have come easier with Harriet.

Sometimes death did seem more appealing than life to Harriet while she was under mastery of Dr. Norcom. Jacobs never actually describes the specifics of her continuous raping by Dr. James Norcom, but it is easy to draw the most gruesome conclusions of what this predator must have done to the innocence of Harriet. I think a cause of focus is the question of, why Harriet was so vague in writing the violations brought against by Dr. Norcom? A big factor may have been the puritanical ways of America at that time. It seems that people did not write about those types of things, no matter what. However, I think Harriet"s upbringing was an important reason of why she was so elusive in her description of the raping. Clearly her Grandmother was a huge influence on Harriet. With that influence Harriet was taught not to talk about such things. She was even afraid to tell her Grandmother about what was going on. "I was very young and felt shamefaced about telling her such impure things, especially as I knew her (Grandmother) to be very strict on such subjects." Harriet said. I think this stayed with Harriet over the years.

When Harriet found love in the midst of her torture, she was again torn between the value of life and the freedom of death. She still had the deep love for her Grandmother and certainly adored her brother, but they were not enough to shed the dark clouds that lay over her head. No love was actually enough to free her from her misery. However, she fell in love with a young man that gave her hope that she explains only love can bring. She romanced about her affair by saying, "I loved, and indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate."(Jacobs p 37) This relationship also brought Harriet hope for freedom once again. The young man who was Harriet"s love interest was free born and wished to marry her. However, after Harriet"s attempts to pursued her master to sell her to the young neighbor failed she was left worse off than before. Dr. Norcom was so cruel he forbade Harriet anymore contact with the young man. Harriet"s next love came when she gave birth to her first child. Her son Benny was conceived as a way to get around Dr. Norcom"s reign of terror. However, this is a subject that was very painful for her. She conveys to the reader that she has great regret for the length she went to stop her Master. Along with her own guilt she carries the memories of her Grandmother"s reaction to the news of her pregnancy. Clearly this was a very traumatic time in Harriet"s life. In light of these difficult events Harriet once again found love and hope in her new born son. "When I was most sorely oppressed I found solace in his smiles. I loved to watch his infant slumber: but always there was a dark cloud over my enjoyment. I could never forget that he was a slave." (Jacobs p. 62)











The Perils of Slavery



A recurring theme in, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is Harriet Jacobs"s reflections on what slavery meant to her as well as all women in bondage. Continuously, Jacobs expresses her deep hatred of slavery, and all of its implications. She dreads such an institution so much that she sometimes regards death as a better alternative than a life in bondage. For Harriet, slavery was different than many African Americans. She did not spend her life harvesting cotton on a large plantation. She was not flogged and beaten with regular accurance like many slaves. She was not actively kept from illiteracy. Actually, Harriet always was treated relatively well. She performed most of her work inside and was rarely ever punished, at the request of her licentious master. Furthermore, she was taught to read and sew, and to perform other tasks associated with a "ladies" work. Outwardly, it appeared that Harriet had it pretty good, in light of what many slaves had succumbed to. However, Ironically Harriet believes these fortunes were actually her curse. The fact that she was well kept and light skinned as well as being attractive lead to her victimization as a sexual object. Consequently, Harriet became a prospective concubine for Dr. Norcom. She points out that life under slavery was as bad as any slave could hope for. Harriet talks about her life as slave by saying, "You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another." (Jacobs p. 55).

In the earliest part of Harriet"s life the whole idea of slavery was foreign to her. As all little girls she was born with a mind that only told her place in the world was that of a little girl. She had no capacity to understand the hardships that she inherited. She explains how her, "heart was as free from care as that of any free-born white child."(Jacobs p. 7) She explains this blissful ignorance by not understanding that she was condemned at birth to a life of the worst kind oppression. Even at six when she first became familiar with the realization that people regarded her as a slave, Harriet could not conceptualize the weight of what this meant. She say"s that her circumstances as slave girl were unusually fortunate, because after her mother passed away she was left with Margaret Horniblow, whom Harriet was clearly fond of. Mistress Horniblow was the one who taught her to read and spell, and treated Harriet like she was her own daughter. Mistress never worked Harriet to hard or prevented her from having fun as little white girls did. Mrs. Horniblow kept her promise that Harriet should never suffer from anything. So, under the care of her mistress, Harriet"s life was a happy one. Still the affects of slavery had not taken hold of her. This went on until her mistress died and Harriet for the first time was exposed to her value as property. It is clear that Harriet Jacob"s has spent the better part of her life trying to reconcile the feelings she has towards her first mistress. On one hand, Harriet loves her mistress deeply for the way she treated Harriet. On the other hand, how could someone that apparently cared for her so much leave her with such an unpredictable fate? It seems that Harriet"s ignorance of her status as property is challenged greatly at this point. In Harriet"s retrospect as an older woman she seems to not have feelings of love and affection to her mistress but does have appreciation for the knowledge that she gained from her.

The next stage of Harriet"s life contains the realization of what slavery is. It was at this time that her true education began. The days of happy frolic were gone, the anguish of slavery was all that lie ahead. Everywhere, Harriet looked there was atrocities happening. Before, when she lived with Margaret Horniblow, she was taken care of. Now all she had was her grandmother. By the time she had spent a couple of years with the Norcom"s (Flint"s) several people that were close to her had died. At the time of these death"s she was obviously very mournful. She even rebelled against God, who had taken her bother parents as well as her loving mistress. However as time went on and the more she experienced the evils of bondage her view of death began to change. This first change came about when her grandmother suggested of her parent"s fate by saying, "Who knows the ways of God? Perhaps they have been kindly taken from the evil days to come."(Jacobs p. 10) She was further subjected to this kind of outlook on death, when she witnessed a dying slave girl giving birth to a white baby, beg for the Lord to come and take her. The belief that death brought peace and freedom seemed to be a common sentiment among slaves who lived such an unrewarding and oppresses life. Many of them had very little to live for. Whereas, the conflict in Harriet"s mind must have been very divisive, because she valued so much about life. If it wasn"t for her Grandmother"s presence and the joy and self-determination she brought to Harriet"s life then maybe accepting death as a blessing may have come easier with Harriet.

Sometimes death did seem more appealing than life to Harriet while she was under mastery of Dr. Norcom. Jacobs never actually describes the specifics of her continuous raping by Dr. James Norcom, but it is easy to draw the most gruesome conclusions of what this predator must have done to the innocence of Harriet. I think a cause of focus is the question of, why Harriet was so vague in writing the violations brought against by Dr. Norcom? A big factor may have been the puritanical ways of America at that time. It seems that people did not write about those types of things, no matter what. However, I think Harriet"s upbringing was an important reason of why she was so elusive in her description of the raping. Clearly her Grandmother was a huge influence on Harriet. With that influence Harriet was taught not to talk about such things. She was even afraid to tell her Grandmother about what was going on. "I was very young and felt shamefaced about telling her such impure things, especially as I knew her (Grandmother) to be very strict on such subjects." Harriet said. I think this stayed with Harriet over the years.

When Harriet found love in the midst of her torture, she was again torn between the value of life and the freedom of death. She still had the deep love for her Grandmother and certainly adored her brother, but they were not enough to shed the dark clouds that lay over her head. No love was actually enough to free her from her misery. However, she fell in love with a young man that gave her hope that she explains only love can bring. She romanced about her affair by saying, "I loved, and indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate."(Jacobs p 37) This relationship also brought Harriet hope for freedom once again. The young man who was Harriet"s love interest was free born and wished to marry her. However, after Harriet"s attempts to pursued her master to sell her to the young neighbor failed she was left worse off than before. Dr. Norcom was so cruel he forbade Harriet anymore contact with the young man. Harriet"s next love came when she gave birth to her first child. Her son Benny was conceived as a way to get around Dr. Norcom"s reign of terror. However, this is a subject that was very painful for her. She conveys to the reader that she has great regret for the length she went to stop her Master. Along with her own guilt she carries the memories of her Grandmother"s reaction to the news of her pregnancy. Clearly this was a very traumatic time in Harriet"s life. In light of these difficult events Harriet once again found love and hope in her new born son. "When I was most sorely oppressed I found solace in his smiles. I loved to watch his infant slumber: but always there was a dark cloud over my enjoyment. I could never forget that he was a slave." (Jacobs p. 62)































 

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