Feminism in Slave Narratives
A comparison of Frederick Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave" and Harriet Jacobs’ "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"
Term Paper 2006 12 Pages
Table of contents
The Slave Narrative as Genre
Feminism and Abolitionism
Structure, style and themes in Douglass’ Narrative
Structure, style and themes in Jacobs’ Incidents
The content of this paper deals with the experiences of American slaves out of a male and a female perspective to outline the relevance of feminism in anti-slavery literature.
The first chapter gives an insight into the characteristics of slave narratives such as style, structure, themes and aims. Slave narratives are a product of abolitionism, but the aim of this paper is to show feministic influences as well, as the second chapter illustrates.
By comparing the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, written by himself with Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl I want to show that the motifs for escape out of slavery are connected to very different factors for a slave woman compared to those of a slave man. Both Douglass and Jacobs suffer from the prevailing system of slavery, but Jacobs’ female point-of-view adds the suffrage from patriarchy as well.
Finally I am going to follow the question why Douglass’ narrative gained more success in the 19th century than Jacobs’ narrative, although both stories deal with antislavery, oppression and the struggle for freedom.
The Slave Narrative as Genre
“The slave narrative is a form of autobiography” (Washington 2000: 72) and deals with the experience of captivity and escape of slaves in the USA, especially during the time of abolitionism in the 19th century. Legally enslaved black Americans described in them their life in bondage and their way to freedom to the North.
Striking about the content are the descriptions of “physical and emotional abuses” (Campbell 2006) of slaves and the separation of families to destroy their bonds to each other, especially of mothers and children. By many religious allusions the narrator evolves the hypocritical Christianity practised by white Southerners who preach from the Bible but treat their slaves like cattle. This contradictory conception of religion of whites contrasts sharply the religion of the slave narrative’s authors, who “search for deliverance from evil” (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-31,pageNum-92.html) and make their way “to the Promised Land” (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-31,pageNum-92.html) through escape.
The content of the slave narrative can be divided into “four chronological phases” (Campbell 2006): “First comes the loss of innocence” (Campbell 2006) when the narrator, usually then a child, realises “what it means to be a slave” (Campbell 2006), often due to a decisive incident in his or her life, leading to the question whether it is possible to change one’s condition. “The third phase is the escape” (Campbell 2006), which sometimes fails at first but finally leads to the narrator’s freedom.
Former slaves who wrote their autobiography depended on the preface by well-known white abolitionists who guaranteed the truth of the author’s story. Another important premise for the writing itself was the fugitive’s literacy which was not a matter of course as slaves were kept illiterate by law. Thus literacy was often connected with freedom (Campbell 2006), not only because literate slaves were able to falsify documents for their escape but by learning to read and write in secret they resisted their owner’s and the Southern law’s domination of them.
To stress the narrative’s authenticity and the fact that its author – the ex slave - is literate the title of the story often includes the additional phrase “Written by [Him- or Her]self” (Douglass 2004 and Jacobs 2000: XV). Furthermore the first chapter usually opens with “I was born” (Douglass 2004: 21 and Jacobs 2000: 1), but the difference to other autobiographies is that the narrator could only tell where he or she was born but was unaware of a specific date.
The authors of slave narratives followed the political aim to enforce slavery’s end and gain support by white readers. Thus also the narratives’ success depended on a white audience.
Feminism and Abolitionism
The USA of the 19th century was politically and economically split between North and South, two systems with very different ideals. “The North was clashing with the South regarding the issue of slavery” (Chua 1996: 51), demanding slaves’ liberation especially within the abolitionist movement.
Their fight for the oppressed slaves influenced feministic reformers who led a movement on women’s rights and emancipation. But the feministic movement was dependent on male support, just as the emancipation of blacks depended on the support of white abolitionists: “both women and blacks” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 93) had to gain acceptance from a society dominated by “white masculinity” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 93). Consequently feminists of the 19th century referred to women’s conditions in the USA “by identifying with the slave” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 95).
Racism and sexism were directly connected with each other in the way that they were rationalised by white men by associating the “subordination of both women and slaves [as] predicated upon biology” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 94). From this biological point-of-view women and slaves were degraded to bodies that lacked “intellect” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 93) and got imposed their roles in society: for women it was their function of “parturition” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 94) and “fertility” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 94) and for slaves it was their “role as servant and laborer” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 94). The latter association was explained by a “’physical structure [that was] more flexed or bent than any other kind of man’” (Sánchez-Eppler 1992: 94).