As part of Node your homework I have cleaned up one of my papers written for my Architectures of Power Class, at the University of Puget Sound. The essay topic is as follows:

Harriet Jacobs's autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl recounts her suffering under slavery, as well as her eventual escape from the South and her life as a free woman. This essay assignment asks you to apply your analytical skills to Jacobs's text in order to analyze the way in which her narrative constructs our understanding of her, and of her plight, and attempts to shape our response to her. For this assignment, please consider the ways in which Jacobs uses her language strategically, in what Robin Lakoff calls "a symbolic expression of distance from power, or lack of interest in power" in an attempt to reach her specific audience (206). As a slave, Jacobs had no rights, no authority—even over her own body. Even sympathetic abolitionists of the time tended to believe that women were a weak and sinful species, and that black women were significantly inferior. In her text, Jacobs makes many accommodations to her audience, using a variety of strategies to gain their sympathy and support. Using a careful analysis of Jacobs's language and the associations of that language (a process called "close reading"), create a coherent, detailed essay about how and why Jacobs uses the specific strategies she does.

Power in the Face of Slavery

By Dave Reed

Only recently has feminine literature begun to be analyzed in just and unbiased manner. Two works that go into great depth on the subject are Women's Language and Talking Power, which attempt to prove that women tend, in their speech and writing, to defect power from their selves through the use of particular language strategies. While this statement may be relevant in most present day literature, there are older examples which show women who attempt to gain power through their writings. One such example is Harriet Jacobs, in her famous autobiographical slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which challenges the power relations both between women and men, and even more so between slaves and their masters. While Jacob's narrative does petition to a white, feminine audience, often times using the "feminine" literary techniques, her voice is much more directed towards the hardships of slavery. Jacobs specifically writes to gain the approval and support of her particular audience in three ways: writing in a gospel preaching style in order to gain the endorsement of the Christian backgrounds; using a romantic style imposed in the writing specifically aimed at attracting women; and finally the use of personal accounts of tragedy within slavery to enlist sympathy among the middle class.

It is evident in reading Jacobs that she makes a conscious effort to relate to her audience in terms of having a common religion. Confirmation of this is prevalent as she recounts getting pregnant; "O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the object of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!" (Jacobs 48). She knows that what she has done is a sin, but makes a clear effort to ask forgiveness because at heart she is truly very pure. And although she does use deference, a feminine term specifically outlined by Lakoff, in her recollection of having sex outside of marriage, it is only used to retain her audience and is passive only in the details of the situation. Slavery is her excuse, and she argues that although what she did was wrong, she is living under a system that is far worse morally, and frequently corrupts those involved. Her reasoning works both to take blame from herself and those oppressing her, "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; and 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" (46). So although she is condemning those who perpetuate the practice, she also shows pity for those who were in a way forced into the conditions surrounding slavery. Instead of placing direct blame on those who are the cruelest to her, she instead takes pity on them. A very prevalent example of this is shown in the Jacob's description of her master's wife, who had to live in silence with the knowledge of having an adulterous husband. Although she is constantly harassing all the female slaves, Jacob's still show no sign of animosity towards the woman, only sorrow; "yet I, whom she detested so bitterly, had far more pity for her than her husband had, whose duty it was to make her happy. I never wronged her, or wished to harm her" (30). Showing compassion in a time of oppression shows great self constraint that is certainly reflected in Jacob's writing. This compassion is obviously gives the writing a very religious tone, and invokes the Christian sympathy within Jacob's audience.

Romantic writing has a primarily female audience and for this reason many romantic events in Jacob's work are explained in detail. Incidents... even has an entire chapter entitled, "The Lover", in which the author describes how the institution of slavery made it impossible for her to happily be married to the love of her life. In this sense the book becomes a romantic tragedy, a true life drama. Her grief at being denied love is unmistakable in her statement, "I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate" (34). However, unlike the stereotypical submissive woman who wallows in her regret she turns her sorrow into defiance of her master. And even though she receives the first outburst of physical violence ever, she stays courageous in the face of pain. Her retaliation is seen in the statement to her master, "I know I have been disrespectful, sir… But you drove me to it; I couldn't help it" (36). In this avowal she is showing that love drove her to confront her master at a time when she normally wouldn't have. However, the love story soon turns to tragedy, manifested through her master, and she is forced to part ways with her companion. The story of lost love is one which the majority of women would be moved by, especially if they knew it was true. Jacob's carefully shifts this pity from herself to the other female slaves in her previous situation.

Shock value is the final technique used to get the middle class audience to realize the perils of slavery, both in recounting the acts of physical violence against men, and even more so, the verbal abuse and sexual predicaments of women. Euphemisms are used in conjunction with these memoirs not as a deterrent but rather a crutch to enable the hostility to be explained in greater detail. Even though the slaves are told that they are far better off in bondage Jacobs realizes that even the lowest class blacks in freedom are still free from being a piece of property. In order to emphasize this point she recounts some of the most horrific stories of violence against plantation slaves. "Some weeks after his escape, he was captured, tied and carried back…placed between the screws of the cotton gin…when the press was unscrewed the dead body was found partly eaten by rats and vermin" (43). Although powerful, these accounts of violence do not seem as consequential as the verbal abuses of Dr. Flint.

"He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof…where I saw a man… violating the most sacred commandments of nature" (26).
The language used in this statement reflects the pain and anguish that no adolescent should have to face. Jacob's must have realized that much of her audience would have families of their own, many of them with numerous children. Therefore Jacob's uses vivid language to construct images that strike home in her audience's consciousness. An even further perusal of this imagery is in her almost suicidal statement after being attacked by her master, "you have tried to kill me, and I wish you had" (36). A statement claiming that slaves would choose death over being in bondage is certainly a bold one, but it also no doubt enlisted passion into the intended audience.

Contrary to the new feminism examinations on language and literature, not all women use feminine techniques to defer authority from themselves. Though Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl does petition a certain audience in its plea against slavery, it also displays how women during slavery could still gain power through their literature. Through the use of gospel, romanticism, and depictions of violence in her literature, Harriet Jacobs successfully writes to her intended audience in a way that gets them to wake up to the hardships of slavery and take a stand against it. She is a prime example of how even those in the most oppressed situations, being both a slave and a woman, could still have the courage to struggle for the right to be free.

Works Cited:

  • Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Dover, 2001.
  • West, Candace, Michelle M. Lazar and Cheris Kramarae. “Gender in Discourse.”
  • Lakoff, Robin Tolman. Introduction and Chs. 1, 2, &3 from Talking Power. NY: HarperCollins Basic Books, 1990.
  • Discourse as Social Interaction. Ed. Tuen A. Van Dijk. London: Sage Publ., 1997.