Sexual Harassment in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is one of the most important ex-slave narratives written by a woman is the memoir. The history of slavery in the United States was well documented as early as the 19th century, primarily in the writings of former slaves, which are often identified as a special genre of documentary prose known in American literature as slave narratives. Reading this work reader can learn many interesting and instructive things about nineteenth-century America and human psychology and life choices in general. The main problem is sexual harassment towards the dark-skinned slave and woman in nature. It is necessary to analyze exactly how the writer reveals this problem in her memoirs.

Grandmother Harriet’s model of behavior is that of a person who wants to do good for her family, relying, however, on socially accepted methods. She is a kind of “puritanical ethicist,” a deeply religious woman who is willing to work unceasingly to achieve something in life – and in her situation the most important thing is to achieve freedom for her children and grandchildren. She is forced to conform her life to the realities of slave society – she says she was originally an independent person, but “adversity and the impossibility of leaning on anyone taught her to rely only on God” (Jacobs 34). Harriet’s situation with her new masters was quite different – they showed no warm feelings toward her, and soon her life became unbearable because of harassment by her master, Dr. Norcom.

The systematic harassment began when she was only 15 years old. As she writes, her master “tried his best to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled in me. He filled my young mind with impure images, such as only a disgusting monster could think of” (Jacobs 63). The systematic harassment is also noticed by those around her; the other slaves are sympathetic, the mistress is only jealous and self-pitying as victim of sexual harassment, is shy about telling what is happening to her.

The white man constantly emphasizes that he has never treated her as a mere Negro, that he is extremely kind to her, that she is ungrateful and does not appreciate his kind and patient attitude. After all, in theory, he could have whipped Harriet, sent her to work on the plantation, and even raped her without any threat of somehow retaliating for it. One can only speculate what stopped him – whether the fact that Harriet was the well-bred and literate mulatto whose favor he ultimately hoped to win. Otherwise the fear of gossip and scandal, or, what seems most important, the authority of her grandmother, who was quite a well-known person in town and whom Mr. Norkom was even afraid of.

When her master does not permit Harriet to marry her first and chaste love, declaring that if he ever saw them together again he would shoot the slave, she yields to the advances of Samuel Sawyer. A story is ordinary for a slave, but scandalous for the author of the memoir as she perceives herself at the time of its writing, and for her grandmother with her deep Puritan religiosity. In fact, Harriet chides herself, seeing this relationship as wrong from a Christian point of view and dictated by less lofty feelings than her first love.

She writes that she was “aware of the insuperable barrier between us; but to be the object of the interest of an unmarried man who is not your master is flattering to the slave’s ego. There is something like freedom in having a lover who has no power over you except that which he gains by kindness and affection” (Jacobs 117). Her correctness and chastity were a matter of her pride and that of her family, some kind of moral support, and such a departure from these rules was undoubtedly a blow to both her and especially to her grandmother.

Unfortunately, Harriet does not actually reveal her true relationship with Samuel Sawyer. She speaks only in passing of gratitude, but she does not further elaborate on this subject, even though relationship with her grandmother and her master is described at some length, with retelling of the conversations between them.

It seems as if the subject seemed obscene or inappropriate to her for some reason. Nevertheless, their relationship seems serious enough: it lasts for several years, Samuel tries to buy her several times, Harriet has two children, whom Sawyer even offers to take her surname when they are baptized. Other sources give us more curious information about their relationship. Their daughter Louise Jacobs, for example, recalled that her mother “loved Samuel Sawyer dearly, said he was a kind and good man, and that she had never had another man” (Jacobs 130). Apparently their relationship was as serious an affair as a white aristocrat and a mulatto girl could be in the prewar South.

In states with more puritanical views, such a relationship had no sanction and was probably seen as reprehensible, as is evident in Harriet’s memoirs. Harriet’s real story, which is quite vital and not unique, falls somewhere between these extremes – Samuel Sawyer shows himself to be a kind and caring man, willing to help Harriet. However, he does not overstepping the bounds of the notions and proprieties of his circle and probably viewing his relationship with her only as a youthful infatuation. Finally, for Harriet, who had become a writer and an “enlightened” free woman, memories of Sawyer’s patronage, which had to be bought by agreeing to the position of mistress, probably seemed somewhat humiliating.

As a person of patriarchal culture, she felt it was her full moral right to resist her master’s harassment when she was a “good” woman, it was much harder to do so. Harriet’s master maintained perception – after the birth of her second child he cut off her hair, which was a traditional form of public humiliation that equated his victim with a woman of easy virtue (Jacobs 15). This action on the part of Dr. Norcom, as well as his reproaches to Harriet’s grandmother for allowing her granddaughter to lead such a lifestyle, were dictated.

Harriet’s recollections are impressed by the normalization and ordinariness of violence in the prewar American South. In a perfectly civilized and prosperous society, the sexual harassment and rape of slave girls, and the suicide of slaves driven to despair by their masters’ cruel treatment, take place in full compliance with the law. Often this systemic violence is cloaked in a cloak of patriarchal concern for slaves and Pharisaic religiosity. Nevertheless, the relationship between blacks and whites during the period of slavery was complex and contradictory.

Work Cited

Jacobs, Harriet. (2019). Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl. Lulu.

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