Sunday, February 11, 2018

Harriet Jacobs, aka. Linda Brent


"...I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of the two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations. May the blessing of God rest upon this imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted people" (Jacobs 281).

Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813 to Elijah Knox and Delilah Horniblow, both slaves. In accordance with the edict of the time, Harriet and her brother, John "followed the condition of their mother" in slavery. After Delilah died when Harriet was a mere six years old, the little girl went to live with her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow. The white mistress taught Harriet to read, and to perform domestic duties such as cooking and sewing. Margaret died in 1825 and in the codicil to her will, bequeathed her slaves to her five-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom, daughter of Dr. James Norcom.

It was Norcom who Jacobs refers to as "Dr. Flint," in her autobiographical narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as the cruel and draconian master who repeatedly molested her for nearly ten years. To escape Norcom's advances, Harriet took a consensual lover, the white attorney and later, congressman, Samuel Sawyer. Sawyer would father her two children, Joseph and Louisa. As the children were considered property of Dr. Norcom, as Harriet remained his slave, Norcom repeatedly threatened to sell Joseph and Louisa if their mother continued to refuse his advances. Harriet Jacobs escaped the homestead of Norcom in 1835, hiding out in swamps and later, in an attic on her grandmother Molly's property where she spent seven years in its cramped, inhospitable quarters.

In 1842 Jacobs escaped to Philadelphia with the help of the antislavery organization the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee; and in 1845, she went from there to New York. In the interim, Sawyer purchased her children and gave them their freedom. He funded their trip north to find work. Harriet worked as a nursemaid in the home of Nathaniel Parker Willis, and her brother aided her by keeping watch in case Norcom should attempt to track her in New York.

By 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law placed Harriet in even greater peril. Her brother, John, fled to California where the law was not in force. Cornelia Grinnell Willis offered to send Harriet to Massachusetts to hide with the Willis baby. In the meantime and without Harriet's knowledge, Willis paid three hundred dollars to Daniel Messmore, the husband of Harriet's legal mistress, thereby making her a free woman.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl changed hands several times before it actually came to print. Initially the narrative was published in serial form by abolitionist newspaper mogul Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, but the details of Harriet's experience with Dr. Norcum proved excessive for the delicate puritanical sensibilities of her audience. Jacobs' next step was to take her manuscript to a publishing house, Phillips and Samson. The firm offered to publish the manuscript provided that Jacobs could secure a foreword from Cornelia Willis or Harriet Beecher Stowe. Jacobs refused to impose on Willis, and Stowe flatly refused her. The manuscript was eventually published by Thayer and Eldridge with a preface by reformer and activist, Lydia Marie Child.

Jacobs' targeted reading audience was middle-class, white, Christian women. She emphasized the horrors exacted upon female virtue, the institution as evidence of the South's avarice; and underscored the manipulation of Christian ethics in the so-called "patriarchal institution." However, what is central to Jacobs' narrative are the trials and obstacles she faced in freeing her children. After her former owner put a price on her head, Jacobs went into hiding. For seven years she inhabited a small, cramped garrett in her grandmother's home, watching over her children through a tiny opening: an experience she relates in painstaking detail in her narrative.

What is distinct about the female slave's narrative is that, along with the numerous dehumanizing and appalling indignities male slaves had to face, female slaves faced the added torment of becoming the victims of miscegenation: a forced sexual liaison with her master. The children that were products of these unions were, more often than not, sold into slavery. Jacob's narrative informs her contemporary audience of the indignities she endured as a woman generally, but more specifically, as a mother.

The Cult of Domesticity

The Cult of Domesticity--or, more pejoratively--The Cult of True Womanhood, endured in the 19th Century from 1820 until 1860. This set of social, sexual, and spiritual mores was constructed on the basis of four primary pillars of behavior dictated to women in the 19th century:

Piety: As Victorian society was divided into separate spheres--that of men (exterior world of business and work); and that of women (the home), 19th century women were thought to represent the 'heart' of the Victorian home, and therefore were believed responsible for embodying Christian asceticism, faith, modesty, and were entrusted with the religious instruction of children.

Purity: 19th century women were to exude moral chastity in mind, body, and soul.

Submission: Women were to submit to the head of household--the husband, the father--and to remain childlike in a condition of perpetual naivete.

Domesticity: As women were the denizens of the home, they were charged with providing a haven for their husbands from the stressors of the outside world. Many of their duties included overseeing the activities of the household, including the duties of servants, maintaining correspondence with social networks and the social roster, and to prepare as immaculate and presentable domestic scene as to further the reputation of her husband.

Scholars note that women's domestic duties were not considered 'work' in the classical sense, but "effortless" demonstrations of their innate nurturing natures.  Work for women outside the home was rare and limited: Protective labor laws further delimited jobs for women in the 19th century as governmental policy deemed that professional work for women encroached upon their domestic duties, so work hours were limited to a spare few during the day, while evening work was prohibited (1). Teaching eventually became widely acknowledged as suitable for females, as the classroom was considered to be an extension of the home, and teaching an extension of spiritual instruction for children. Catharine Beecher (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe) was early educator who championed the inclusion of Kindergarten in early childhood education.

African American women in the 19th century were not subjected to the same criteria. Thought to be amoral and wanton, the African American woman's body was consistently objectified and sexualized by white males. While white females were heralded as sainted mothers, the black woman could not ascend to "true womanhood" and therefore felt no pangs of grief when separated from her children. These social mores were situated in place to ensure the control of the white male in Victorian society: such strategic social structuring ensured his dominion over two spheres of femininity in the household and put in place a complex network of social dynamics most visible between white and black women in the 19th century.

Below are some references to further reading on the topic of the Cult of True Womanhood, and to other related topics:

JSTOR: "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" by Barbara Welter
America in Class: The Cult of Domesticity
"Cult of True Womanhood" by Jeanne Boydston/
Gwin, Minrose. "Green-Eyed Monsters of the  
   Slavocracy: Jealous Mistresses in Two Slave
   Narratives." Conjuring: Black Women Writers and   
   Literary Tradition. ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense
   Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895

According to our text, the early twentieth century saw a momentary enthusiasm for remembering Douglass as one of the most memorable and formidable anti-slavery speakers, lecturers, and intellects. However, it was not until the 1960s, in which the nation saw a cry for Black Studies programs in colleges and universities, that the life and work of Frederick Douglass was reconsidered. In a rare instance, the African American publication, Ebony magazine published an article on Douglass. The post-modern era of Civil Rights Activism caused black intellectuals to cast a backward glance at the endeavors of their forebears. The article began:

"Born a slave, he escaped to freedom while still young and devoted a long and fruitful life to the winning of freedom for all Negroes. A fervent integrationist, he was the first of the 'freedom riders' and 'sit iners.' He felt that true freedom could not com for him until all Negroes were free and equal" (Ebony Magazine, 1963).

Born in Talbot County in about 1818 to Harriet Bailey and an "unknown white man," Frederick Douglass emerged from the brutality and subjugation of slavery to become one of this nation's most revered activists, reformers, abolitionists, and statesmen (Gates 385). Our text points out that James McHune Smith, a physician and contemporary of Douglass's in the Abolitionist movement, described Douglass as a "'noble example'" of American perseverence and self-actualization. Douglass moved audiences with his eloquence and oratory, which he delivered while still under the threat of recapture. The speaker casts an ironic figure against the spectre of the stated goals of American independence: Douglass was the very epitome of the self-made individual who elevated himself from the depths of bondage, to freedom.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself was the author's first autobiography published in 1845; the subtitle assuming even greater significance as its author battled against assumptions that a black man was incapable of intellectual thought or reflection. Ten years later, following a disagreement with abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, he would republish his biography under the title My Bondage and My Freedom. The second narrative, which includes the addendum of his life as an orator for human rights, is comparatively a more trenchant, reflective, and philosophical review of Douglass's life in slavery. In it, he recounts numerous remembrances of the horrors of physical abuse which he himself bore; and the abuse he witnessed of others, particularly women.

Notably, Douglass is credited with introducing the "I-Narrative" of slave autobiography: one that features the first-person account of slavery from one who experienced--and witnessed its horrors firsthand. Also of note, Douglass's second biography explores not simply the physical horrors of slavery, but the moral, psychological, and emotional abuses incurred from the institution. Determined to defend the personhood and humanity of the slave subject, Douglass's project was an examination of the individual's evolution as he journeyed from bondage to freedom.

Each edition of Douglass's story includes what are now considered the conventions of the slave narrative. Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom are episodic in structure, featuring his recollections of an idyllic childhood in his grandmother's cottage before coming to an awareness of his condition as a slave. He came of age as a house servant to Thomas Auld and his benevolent wife, Lucretia, before going to Baltimore to serve at the household of Hugh and Sophia Auld. In the Auld household, Douglass would learn to read from Scripture until Mr. Auld demanded his wife to stop instructing him, insisting that if one were "to give (a slave) and inch, he will take the entire ell." It was at this point that Douglass realized that the key to freedom was literacy.

Following an altercation between Hugh Auld and his brother, Thomas (Douglass's legal owner) Douglass was sent to work as a farmhand at St. Michaels, where he was turned over to the notorious slave-breaker, Edward Covey. Our text relates that "after six months of unstinting labor, merciless whippings, and repeated humiliations, the desperate sixteen-year-old slave fought back, resisting one of Covey's attempted beatings and intimidating his tormentor sufficiently to prevent future attacks. Douglass's account of his struggle with Covey would become the heroic turning point of his future autobiographies and one of the most celebrated scenes in all of antebellum African American literature" (385). Douglass's triumph over the monstrous Covey may have served as a significant turning point in Douglass's emergence as the formidable and undaunted figure for which he is renowned.

One of the most striking aspects of Douglass's second autobiography is that, despite the eloquent language of the text, Douglass portrays his life in and after slavery with rare directness and explicit honesty. Douglass is brutally direct and incisive, naming precise dates, places, and names associated with the events that took place. His intrepid honesty never wavered despite the fact that he was a fugitive slave. In an excerpt from My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass explains that he often tired from recounting his life in slavery to Northern audiences; however, he took great pains to write the history of his plight not once, but three times. Douglass's autobiographies gave form to the so-called 'slave narrative,' endowing the form with its recognizable conventions, and paving the way for the evolution of black autobiography and 'writing the self into existence.'