How does one articulate a slave’s continual pain? Which compositional medium best conveys a lifetime of misery? What last-minute omissions can a publishing company make to encapsulate the emotional onslaught felt by millions of voiceless sufferers? With all things considered, can the written word ever authentically illustrate a life enslaved? These are questions scholars certainly take time to explore now, but in the latter-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black writers did not have the leisure to carefully consider and evaluate the best means to voice pressing concerns of slavery and its victims. However, limited time and resources would not keep black authors—especially female black authors—from attempts to define and describe their troubling and matchless experiences as an oppressed people. Breaking from a steady flow of Anglo-centric poets and novelists, the literary continuum was rocked by a class of female black writers desperate to apply literacy as a means to spark concern for the plight of enslaved blacks, namely black women. These socially-driven authors experimented with themes and styles to introduce new voices into the Western canon, ultimately forming a lens with which more members of society could understand the gravity of black misfortune.
However, while it may be tempting to romanticize that any and all black female writers advanced the cause of social justice through empowered prose and thoughtful dedication to addressing racial issues in society, early black female writers were far more conservative. In fact, examining the poetry of the first published female African-American, Phillis Wheatley, one would have trouble arguing that she was trying to elevate the social condition of her race at all. Part of this conservatism is likely a result of her upbringing. Phillis Wheatley was indeed a house slave in the American colonies, but her experience was quite different from what people today might consider a typical slave lifestyle.
Through her education, Wheatley was practically incubated in comparison to the other slaves. Her master found that she had a natural inclination toward composition and set out to teach her individually away from the other house hands (an incredibly rare decision as slaves at the time were generally regarded as both incapable and undeserving of education). Within a short time, Wheatley was already versed in such undisputed staples of Western literature as the Bible and Homer’s epics (“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious or Moral” 216). The reader can clearly see these texts’ influence on Phillis Wheatley’s work. One of Wheatley’s early poems, “To Maecenas,” reveals a clear and deliberate attempt by the author to display her Western education. This poem is so absorbed in the classical tradition, it hardly contains a trace of material that seems authentic to Wheatley’s personal experience. She opens the poem with an appeal to the Muses and references to Homer and Virgil—a literary move that conjures up the style of Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. Despite her condition as a slave in the Americas, Wheatley seems most concerned with fitting Western literary tropes and themes, going so far as to claim all poets derive from “the same” (“To Maecenas” ll. 3) artistic spirit and flame.
Because of her emphasis on bonding with an existing literary framework, it becomes very difficult to differentiate Wheatley from any Anglo author. Wheatley does not even introduce herself as African-American until her poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England.” In this letter to the University, Wheatley speaks of her African homeland—though not in a manner that expresses the remotest degree of fondness or pride as one might expect from someone who was forcibly snatched from it during the transatlantic slave trade. Rather, she calls it “the land of errors,” “dark abodes,” and “Egyptian gloom” (ll. 4). Impressions like this, once again, hearken back to her literacy education. Particularly, the term “the land of errors” suggests that she was taught to associate Africa as a disorderly land, miserable without the guidance of Western beliefs. Later on in the poem, Wheatley even declares that it was God’s “gracious hand” (ll. 5) that took her to “safety” (ll. 6), in this context, meaning England. Wheatley was likely latching onto a zeitgeist in eighteenth-century English and American Biblical literacy known as the “Curse of Ham.” The “Curse” asserts that those with darker skin—namely, Africans—are descendants of the Biblical Ham, a cursed son of Noah (Goldenberg 142). Essentially, the assumption behind the Curse is that Africa is a land populated by those ‘marked’ and punished by God. So while Phillis Wheatley betrays her roots in portraying it as a land of misery, she is actually exercising an indoctrinating literary staple of the time period.
Wheatley’s understanding of the Curse is further illustrated in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Wheatley concentrates on racism, but only as a spiritual construct. She writes that her enslaved condition taught her that even “Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (ll. 6-7). One’s closeness to salvation, in Wheatley’s framework, is linked to skin color. Therefore, blacks in the company of whites—even after suffering a horrible journey through the Middle Passage as slave cargo—are closer to the “angelic train” simply by virtue of their proximity to purer-white skin tone. This spiritual-racial blend begins to read more and more like propaganda as Wheatley declares that slavery “[t]aught [her] benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too” (ll. 2-3). Here, Wheatley reflects that her “benighted soul,” punished by God with darkness, is brought closer to Him by slavery. In other words, her oppressed status is her salvation.
It becomes no wonder why the poetry of Phillis Wheatley appealed so well to the white audience. Her poetry presents an innocent defense (and even spiritual endorsement) of a cruel, profiteering system. However, the notion of a skilled, literate black female also appealed to readers who believed that black men and women were incapable of producing any form of artistry, let alone poetry. Wheatley is presented as an anomaly, a literary circus act. The editor writes in his preface to Wheatley’s work that:
she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen months time from her Arrival, attained the English language to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her (“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” 216).
By including extreme reactions like “Astonishment” (actually printed with a capital “a,” as if to say this was astonishment in the purest form), the editor is able to remind the reader that black female literacy is entirely unheard of. Wheatley’s literacy is explained with so much amazement and hyperbole that it could very well discourage other black females from taking up the pen. After all, who in the world could go from “utter Stranger” to reading “the most difficult parts of the Sacred writings” in just a year-and-a-half? Of course, this description is unconfirmed, but the story of Wheatley’s education, real or not, paints the picture of black literacy as being nearly unattainable to everyone but those graced with special gifts.
Still, despite the claims the editor makes about female black literacy, he takes incredible steps to ensure the audience does not read too much into Wheatley’s writing. The editor may show off Wheatley as a literary phenomenon, but he will not allow her work to be seriously. The editor writes, “The following poems were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were products of her leisure moments” (216). Once again, the editor takes control in describing Wheatley. He tells the reader that—regardless of any first-hand accounts from Wheatley herself—he can assure these poems are not serious endeavors to Wheatley, merely passages for “Amusement” in “leisure time.” The only type of reaction the editor frames for the reader to gauge Wheatley’s work is ‘Astonished’ or ‘Amused’ (once again in the capitalized, ideal sense). In his mind, Wheatley’s literacy exists not to evoke stronger responses like sympathy, rapture, or even thought-stimulation. Her work is to be treated simply as endowed musings from an artistically-inclined woman.
Wheatley may have produced more subversive work on her own time. However, when editors with ideological motivations control printing, the audience’s perspective on female black literacy can be manipulated. But further along in the nineteenth century, there is a great increase in abolitionist editors and publishers who allow more black female voices to rise and capture both England’s and America’s attentions. Perhaps, one of the most significant trends in black female literacy and literature in the nineteenth century is the rise of the slave narrative. While more popular titles like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass have seen wide-acclaim and canon-like readership, many African-American women writers would also use the slave narrative genre to alert society to massive injustice. One such author was Mary Prince.
Mary Prince was a former slave whose 1831 “autobiography,” History of Mary Prince, saw wide readership in the United Kingdom. “Autobiography” is encased in quotes because while the text is told in first person, it was dictated through Prince to a white, abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle. However, unlike the case of Phillis Wheatley, the editor’s presence does not serve to diminish the impact of Prince’s writing—rather the opposite. In this case, the editor takes strides to draw out emotionally evocative moments of sorrow in Prince’s life so that the reader may be more fully engrossed in its contents. This is most evident in the occasional exclamations of grief strewn throughout the narrative. While Prince’s story never assumes slave dialect, as one might expect from an illiterate source like Prince, the narration contains dramatic outbursts such as “but oh! ‘twas light, light to the trials I have since endured!—‘twas nothing—nothing to be mentioned with them” (Prince 232). In moments like these, it is clear that the editor is most concerned with promoting emotional responses from the reader over plot and structure. The repeated use of exclamation points, the stuttering “nothing,” and even the repetition of “’twas” suggests that the editor has no problem propping up Mary Prince as a distressed, classically-relatable protagonist—one that conjures up the devastated diction of a damsel in distress.
Mary Prince’s narrative makes no attempt to portray a moral gray area for slavery. Its characters (aside from Prince herself) are archetypal and prevent the reader from having any sympathy for white slave owners (unlike Phillis Wheatley’s implications that her master had spiritual cause to enslave her). Prince dictates, “And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist. She was a fearful woman and a savage mistress to her slaves” (239). The “savage” slave master type becomes a key literary device employed by abolitionist authors and narratives and Mary Prince does not shy away from exaggerating it to its fullest potential. Prince explains that the slavery system will only go on to produce more and more monstrous slave owners, noting that “[the slave owner’s son] had been brought up by a bad father in a bad path, and he delighted to follow in the same steps” (246). No reader could possibly drum up a defense of the plain-spoken “bad path.” In a storybook fashion, Mary Prince impresses an image of pure, unjustifiable evil on the slave system.
However, one thing is missing from Mary Prince’s narrative: with so much attention dedicated to addressing slavery’s overall barbarism, little to no time is given to speak on female-specific slave issues. It seems incredibly odd that, in an entire slave narrative supposedly dictated by a slave woman, no mention of the unique female slave experience occurs beyond a small anecdote regarding Prince’s mother’s discomfort with sea travel (247-248). A potential reason behind this omission lies with the editor himself. Thomas Pringle asserts even at the beginning of the narrative that, while Mary Prince’s story is worth reading, he ultimately wants the white man’s voice to be in control of this black female’s authorship. The title page of History of Mary Prince contains an epigraph from a poem by William Cowper, a white abolitionist, reading, “Deem our nation brutes no longer/ Till some reason ye shall find/ Worthier of regard and stronger/ Than the colour of our kind” (227). Why would an outspoken slave like Mary Prince require an introduction to her biography by a white man assuming a black persona speaking on behalf of her race? Although Thomas Pringle takes up the noble mission to inform readers on the massive injustice slavery inflicts on its victims, he seems hesitant to allow the female black author—while freed—to escape patriarchal control. Mary Prince is not even given control of her introduction (let alone the voice and topics of her narrative).
The relationship between the black female author and white male editor, even when well-intentioned, is fraught with tension. However, the dissonance between the male editor’s priority to sell a patriarchal abolitionist story and the author’s message of personal tragedy could resolve when the slave herself takes up the pen with a female editor. Thus represents the approach taken by former slave, Linda Brent (actually named Harriet Jacobs), and her editor, Lydia Marie Child, in their 1861 work Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The past two addressed works have represented complicated early nineteenth-century attempts at establishing the black female voice, but this work presents the most unadulterated account of a unique slave woman experience.
As the nineteenth century progresses, the reader notices an increased awareness paid to the unique brutality of the slave experience. A greater specificity comes about as Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Marie Child take on the project to accurately portray the overlooked “Incidents” in a slave girl’s life: incidents that not only serve to inform the reader of the depth of extensive brutality in the slave system unique to women, but also to evoke sympathy from females around the country and motivate them to act on female slaves’ behalf. In order to establish this sympathy early-on, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl contains on its title page two epigraphs. One comes from a nameless “Woman of North Carolina,” which immediately brings the reader to question why any literature would quote such a mundane, unheard-of source. Child and Jacobs anticipate such objections and stand earnestly beside the quote to emphasize that the following story is one that will focus on the enormous, dramatic catastrophes that can even affect the average woman dominated by slavery. Jacobs begins her narrative, “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered and most of them far worse” (408). No longer will Jacobs tolerate the popular narratives like History of Mary Prince that seem to heighten and sensationalize a blanketed form of black cruelty, as if the slave is a human made up of just one characteristic. Jacobs stands before her Northern audience as a representative of a new voice in black literature: the female slave who will not sit by and allow female readers to absorb the over-dramatized narratives that leave the women’s experience untouched.
Jacobs takes many opportunities throughout her narrative to invoke her audience directly. At one point, she asides:
O, you happy free women, contrast your New Year’s day with that of the poor bond-woman! With you it is a pleasant season, and the light of the day is blessed. Friendly wishes meet you every where and gifts are showered upon you… Children bring their little offerings and raise their rosy lips for a caress. They are your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you (424).
In an editorial move that may have upset many publishers, Jacobs blatantly interrupts her own narrative with a reminder of its social importance. More importantly, she interrupts and attacks her reader: Jacobs italicizes “your” to condemn the reader for enjoying holidays without thinking of “the poor bond-woman.” It is clear that Jacobs is not motivated merely to please the reader with an exciting, escapist tale. She will even go so far as to bring in the reader’s children, such inviolable and pure creatures, to illuminate the cruelty inflicted upon women. Jacobs does not speak to the reader as a neutered or spiritual writer (as is the case with Prince and Wheatley respectively), she speaks to her female readers as a mother—as a representative of the sacred institution of maternity, an institution, Jacobs hopes, that can transcend racial boundaries. The closing portion of the excerpt, “They are your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you,” surely does not sit well with any motherly reader as she is forced to put herself in Jacobs’s shoes, realizing the disturbing thought that black women must cope with losing their children to the slave trader so easily and coldly.
Jacobs and Child most evoke social progressivism for women black writers of the nineteenth century primarily due to their focus on motherhood. The majority of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl can be read as a gripping representation of the perversion of maternity in the lives of slave women. One of the first characters the reader meets is Harriet’s grandmother. Rather than dedicate time detailing her grandmother’s life in the slave trade as human capital or even describe the horrific punishments her grandmother may have faced along the way, Jacobs jumps straight to maternity. She details: “My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the baby of the mistress might obtain sufficient food” (415). Looking back on History of Mary Prince and the story of the “savage mistress,” it seems odd that Jacobs selects such a minimally sensationalist story to introduce her grandmother and relationship to her master’s family. However, in Jacobs’s case, she assures the reader that her mission is not to dramatize, but to draw a link between the female reader and the female slave. What mother would not sympathize with the grotesqueness of having to feed another mother’s baby while being forced to neglect her own—let alone the fact that the family of the same baby inflicts such unnatural and punishing duties upon her? The fact that Jacobs writes so unfeelingly that “[her] mother had been weaned at three months old, that the baby of the mistress might obtain sufficient food,” without explicitly condemning its inhumane selfishness, only intensifies Jacobs’s point that slavery severs both biological and emotional ties between mothers and their children.
In subsequent passages, Jacobs only intensifies the cruelty of slavery through the lens of maternity, as it keeps mothers from satisfying the most basic desire to see their children thrive. At one point, Jacobs tells the story of a fellow slave whom “[s]even children called… mother. The poor black woman had but the one child whose eyes she saw closing in death, while she thanked God for taking her away from the greater bitterness of life” (422). Once more, Jacobs takes a turn from other female slave narratives and refuses to capitalize on describing this particular child’s suffering up to her death. Jacobs wants the reader to focus on the mother, this “poor black woman” who is so manipulated by the slave system that she “thanked God” for taking her daughter’s life. Slavery is so brutal for the woman that she openly praises the powers that be for extinguishing her offspring, fearing that they may someday experience the “bitterness” the mothers feel.
However, before the reader can count her blessings, assuming that such psychological turmoil is unique to slaves, Jacobs reminds the reader that “[the slave mother] may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies” (424). This kind of sentiment relies on the hope that female readers will understand what she means by “mother’s instincts” and “mother’s agonies.” Jacobs acknowledges the popular notion that blacks in general are considered “ignorant creatures”; however, she positions the roles and responsibilities of motherhood above such prejudices. Jacobs’s literary project is not to present the black female experience as a sequence of brutal physical punishments that can only be experienced by a fellow black person; she intends to write to a more universal theme of motherhood as a whole.
That being said, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl broadens its focus to many issues specific to slave women beyond just motherhood. Though most of the references are only implied and never explored in a physically descriptive sense, a large portion of Jacobs’s narrative brings attention to the issue of master-on-slave sexual violence. This crime, according to Jacobs, is as pervasive as they come, as she claims:
No matter whether slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by friends who bear the shape of men” (436)
Further regarding sexual vulnerability as a female slave, Jacobs explains, “[The female slave] will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove to be her greatest curse” (437). One particular rhetorical technique that continuously stands out in Jacobs’s literary project is her ability to redefine slave-specific issues into a universal context. Jacobs does not say the perpetrators of such violence are ‘friends who bear the shape of masters,’ but “friends who bear the shape of men” (emphasis added). Sexual violence, as Jacobs sees it, is not a conflict of slave versus master, as it would be in so many slave narratives: it is a conflict of women versus men. It results from the so-called ‘great curse of beauty’ that objectifies all women (not just slave women) and causes them great sexual harm and even “death.” This sexual conflict could even appeal to one of Jacobs’s most antagonistic readers, a slave mistress. At one point, Jacobs recounts a time when her mistress expressed jealousy that her husband shows more sexual interest in his slave women than his own wife. Jacobs writes, “[My mistress] wept, and sometimes groaned. She spoke in tones so sad, that I was touched by her grief. The tears came to my eyes; but I was soon convinced that her emotions arose from anger and wounded pride” (442). While Jacobs will not give her whole sympathy to her mistress who has never been forcibly bought-and-sold as both a worker and sexual object, she does indicate that there is a common female bond, even between mistress and slave, in the “grief” that sexual abuse brings for women involved in slavery. This directly relates to her original literary mission to make white women aware of the hardships of female slavery so that they might be ‘aroused’ to defend their black sisters; Jacobs succeeds in avoiding common slave narrative tropes and evoking great sympathy for the female slave experience.
It is Jacobs’s sincere hope that her female readers will discard prior assumptions about their distance from slave narratives: just because they are white does not mean they can never feel what the slave feels. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl works wholeheartedly to illustrate the fact that black literary representation cannot operate solely to represent the slave experience bereft of any connections to the white experience. If the white reader is to be moved by literature, he or she must be moved to sympathy. Furthermore, if any reader is to feel a desire to act on behalf of slaves, he or she has to understand that the pain behind the slave experience is universal. It is not a ‘salvation,’ as Phillis Wheatley might phrase it. It is not a sensationalized storybook as Prince’s editor, Thomas Pringle, might have a reader believe. It is a catalogue of gross, inhumane, but deeply personal misfortune that taps at the very heart of women and men. Due to the shifts in purpose of the narratives of these women, the course of the nineteenth century saw a great change in the way black women writers define their oppression. No longer would they contently rest to write on slavery as if it was a distant phenomenon that could in some way benefit the heathen African. Female black literature adopted the duty to alert society of slavery’s injustices and make them universally known so no man or woman in good conscious could justify them any longer.