book response: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself

February is Black History Month in the United States, which I want to use to read the accounts of those whose experience so different from mine. Many historical texts are now freely available and are starting to fill up my Kindle. This story broke my heart as I read it, and I encourage all Americans to read the accounts, like this, of our own practice of inhumanity. While I get justifiably upset when I read the wicked inhumanity of the Japanese, I tend to forget that their behavior was not unique to their culture. We Americans have committed many inhumane horrors throughout our history, especially in our slave-owning period. Anyone who refers to the American Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression have no idea of the degree wickedness the Confederacy was trying to protect. This account by escaped slave Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861) should be enough for any modern defender of the Confederacy to be ashamed. The book is long, thorough and demands a response from us her readers. What will we do when presented with these accounts? I will quote abundantly, to a fault, from this book so that her point is loud and clear, slavery dehumanizes both slave and owners, even the church going owners. As the afterward writer says, Her story, as written by herself, cannot fail to interest the reader. It is a sad illustration of the condition of this country, which boasts of its civilization, while it sanctions laws and customs which make the experiences of the present more strange than any fictions of the past.


Regarding her father's desire to free his children, His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. p. 15

Money did not allow re-humanization, nor did love, because slaves meant wealth in hard times. A slave could always be sold to pay an owner's bill. These Africans were not humans, they were investments, and, thus, were not treated as humans.


Notwithstanding my grandmother's long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.  p.18


Wickedly, the owners felt free to sexually abuse these "investments." When the mother was delivered into the trader's hands, she said. "You promised to treat me well." To which he replied, "You have let your tongue run too far; damn you!" She had forgotten that it was a crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child. p.23

This past summer, some Republican presidential candidates signed a conservative statement on the sad state of marriage among black Americans, falsely claiming that children of slaves were more likely to live with both their parents than children of today's black families are. This is revisionist history, because slave families had no legal standing and were often broken up, unless the document is referring to slave children born to the owner of the mother... On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was brought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. p. 26

The tacit concubinage dehumanized the slave owner's wife as well. This contributes to a cycle of dehumanzation that flows from owner to slave, and wife to innocent children.
To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness. Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation; and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the slave-trader's hands as soon as possible, and thus getting them out of their sight. p.45

Dehumanization does produce an inferiority, but one of disposition, not of capability. What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors? I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work. p.54

Jacobs honestly struggles with faith in God and Jesus Christ, but her theological understanding greatly exceeds that of the owners in southern culture.
They seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves. What a libel upon the heavenly Father, who "made of one blood all nations of men!" And then who are Africans? Who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves? p. 54

I recently read the on-line comments section of a southern paper about a racial incident, that brought the white racists out in droves of support for the old days. One claimed that owners never would abuse their slaves because they were too valuable. It's easy enough for any of us to look around and see others abusing the valuable things in our lives, wives, children, privileges, but this cluelss person does not appreciate the devastation one does to one's soul as the rot of dehumanization sets in. Consequently, murder of slaves was not uncommon.
Murder was so common on his plantation that he feared to be alone after nightfall. He might have believed in ghosts. His brother, if not equal in wealth, was at least equal in cruelty. His bloodhounds were well trained. Their pen was spacious, and a terror to the slaves. They were let loose on a runway, and, if they tracked him, they literally tore the flesh from his bones. When this slaveholder died, his shrieks and groans were so frightful that they appalled his own friends. His last words were, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me." p.58
This same master shot a woman through the head, who had run away and been brought back to him. No one called him to account for it. If a slave resisted being whipped, the bloodhounds were unpacked, and set upon him, to tear his flesh from his bones. The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman. He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower... I do not say there are no humane slaveholders. Such characters do exist, notwithstanding the hardening influences around them. But they are "like angels' visits--few and far between." p. 60 

Sexual abuse of slaves was not only rampant, it was normal. No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. p.62

Not only were women abused but men were as well. When this resulted in pregnancy for the white woman, the infant was often killed immediately after birth. Since the law of the land was "as the child so the mother," concerning slavery or freedom, perhaps it was too threatening to have a free born half-black child growing up on the estate. Perhaps they might actually fulfill the oft-broken promise to free slaves.
In such cases the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. If they are girls, I have indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny. p.62

No one escapes the corrosion of dehumanization.
I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation. p.62

It's ironic that people still write and declare that slavery done by those wonderfully honorable southerners of faith produced happy slaves, content with their lot. The owners response to slave rebellions is one contrary example.
Not far from this time Nat Turner's insurrection broke out; and the news threw our town into great commotion. Strange that they should be alarmed, when their slaves were so "contented and happy"! But so it was. p. 77

In fact, in Jacob's North Carolingian area, whites destroyed the simple black church, contrary to any claim that they cared for their eternal souls.
 The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church in the woods, with their burying ground around it. It was built by the colored people, and they had no higher happiness than to meet there and sing hymns together, and pour out their hearts in spontaneous prayer. Their request was denied, and the church was demolished. p. 81
The church was their place of hope and respite.
They never seem so happy as when shouting and singing at religious meetings. Many of them are sincere, and nearer to the gate of heaven than sanctimonious Mr. Pike, and other long-faced Christians, who see wounded Samaritans, and pass by on the other side. p. 84
She tells a story of secretly teaching an old-slave how to read because he wanted to read the Bible on his own. It was agains the law for her to teach another human being to read. She points out the inability of those owners to read themselves.
There are thousands, who, like good uncle Fred, are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it. They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home. I am glad that missionaries go out to the dark corners of the earth; but I ask them not to overlook the dark corners at home. Talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa. Tell them it was wrong to traffic in men. Tell them it is sinful to sell their own children, and atrocious to violate their own daughters. Tell them that all men are brethren, and that man has no right to shut out the light of knowledge from his brother. Tell them they are answerable to God for sealing up the Fountain of Life from souls that are thirsting for it. There are men who would gladly undertake such missionary work as this; but, alas! their number is small. They are hated by the south, and would be driven from its soil, or dragged to prison to die, as others have been before them...There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south. If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church, no matter if it be the price of blood, he is called religious. If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismiss him, if she is a white woman; but if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd. pp. 88-89

Like today, in spite of the evidence, she can't believe the bald-face lying in defense of the slave owning south.
Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of many such facts as these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was "a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!"p. 138
When slavery is everything evil and not a blessing, how does any American today hold onto a romantic view of the confederacy that rejected a democratic method of the cessation of slavery and chose secession instead to protect it's inhumanity?

The inhumanity included denying the legality of slave marriages. Nothing can inconvenience slave owners, not even sacred vows before God.
This aunt had been married at twenty years of age; that is, as far as slaves can marry. She had the consent of her master and mistress, and a clergyman performed the ceremony. But it was a mere form, without any legal value. Her master or mistress could annul it any day they pleased. p. 161

Any attempts at treating slaves as fellow humans was socially discouraged.
At the south, a gentleman may have a shoal of colored children without any disgrace; but if he is known to purchase them, with the view of setting them free, the example is thought to be dangerous to their "peculiar institution," and he becomes unpopular. p. 193

After her escape to freedom, she was able to visit England and observe the differences between the poor there and slavery in the south.
I had heard much about the oppression of the poor in Europe. The people I saw around me were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky, and driven and slashed by an overseer, through heat and cold, till the stars shone out again. Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. They must separate to earn their living; but the parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters. The relations of husband and wife, parent and child, were too sacred for the richest noble in the land to violate with impunity. Much was being done to enlighten these poor people. p. 206
Although her faith was weak, and rightfully so, it was renewed by the expression of it witnessed in England.
My visit to England is a memorable event in my life, from the fact of my having there received strong religious impressions. The contemptuous manner in which the communion had been administered to colored people, in my native place; the church membership of Dr. Flint, and others like him; and the buying and selling of slaves, by professed ministers of the gospel, had given me a prejudice against the Episcopal church. The whole service seemed to me a mockery and a sham. But my home in Steventon was in the family of a clergyman, who was a true disciple of Jesus. The beauty of his daily life inspired me with faith in the genuineness of Christian professions. p. 207
When she returned to the United States, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had been enacted which put her freedom at risk, even in New York City.
When I took the children out to breathe the air, I closely observed the countenances of all I met. I dreaded the approach of summer, when snakes and slaveholders make their appearance. I was, in fact, a slave in New York, as subject to slave laws as I had been in a Slave State. Strange incongruity in a State called free! p. 216
This same law forced Harriet Tubman to change her final destination on the Underground Railroad from New England and New York to Canada. My next book response is to a biography of Tubman. This book by Harriet Jacobs made my groan out loud sometimes as the insults (physical, emotional, spiritual) piled up. I was ashamed of my country. But that does not mean this isn't an important book to read, nor that it is a poorly written book. I presume she had an amanuensis who was able to craft her story with strong writing. It is a strong story regardless, and is only enhanced by the strong writing. I can't wait to meet her in heaven someday. Meanwhile on this earth, I hope I can live courageously to not treat any human as inhuman.
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