Male and Female Slave Narratives
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass encompass both similarities and differences. They both contain common elements that appertain to slave narratives such as prefaces that are written directly to abolitionists and pleas to abolitionists to oppose slavery based on its reprehensible nature. They both illustrate the life of slaves on a daily basis; however, Douglass’ narrative focuses on the male perspective, and Jacobs’ narrative focuses on the female perspective. Furthermore, both narratives illustrate how Douglass and Jacobs are able to obtain an education in the midst of an institution that warrants death for educated slaves. Their subversion of this practice allows both of them to express themselves in a manner that engages readers in paying attention to their accounts of the institution of slavery and its evil nature.
Jacobs focuses on the vile sexual harassment and abuse that enslaved females endure from the male enslavers and their wives. One of the most heartbreaking accounts that illustrates this vile dichotomy is her account of a young girl who gives birth to the master’s child and soon dies after. The young girl’s mother, another enslaved woman, witnesses the entire event while begging God to take her daughter away from such suffering. Observe the mistresses’ response: “‘Heaven!’” retorted the mistress, “‘There is no such place for the like of her and her bastard’” (287). Here, as in much of Jacobs’ text, she is able to capture the sick and distorted nature of the mindset of the master and the mistress. The mistress hates the young enslaved girl that her husband forced himself upon; in the mistresses sick mind, she sees this young girl as a threat to her as though the young girl has engaged in a choice affair with her husband. Furthermore, the cruel comments to the young girl’s mother only further proves the sickness that this institution has inflicts upon the mistress’ mental state. The mistress’ comments prove the vile and sick nature of what is referred to as the “peculiar institution”.
Douglass writes of such atrocities as well; however, he writes from a male perspective. Furthermore, when he references slaves, he uses the pronouns persons or he; this illustrates his male perspective. He also incorporates specific incidents of abuses by the masters and overseers of the slaves. Observe the following quote which illustrates such an abuse: “Mr. Thomas Lanman, of St. Michaels, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed” (405). In this quote, Douglass illustrates the physical death of a slave and the attempt to murder the spirit of a people, for killing slaves in such a manner is meant to break the spirit of them all, to keep them in line so to speak.
Common Major Theme
The major theme that both Douglass’ narrative and Jacobs’ narrative have in common is the need to obtain freedom, and it is apparent that their freedom is imperative for the sake of a people and not just for the sake of themselves. Jacobs seems to have more of a need to secure her family first; however, freedom for the sake of saving the other slaves from bondage is apparent as well. After their quests for freedom becomes reality, they both seek to utilize their education as a means to free other enslaved Blacks. Both narratives are told from varying male and female perspectives; however, the motivation in writing the narratives is identical. They are both meant to save others still in bondage and less fortunate.
Regardless of the differences within the text, one cannot say that one perspective experience was any worse than the other. People tend to romanticize slavery; however, the fact is that this was a corrupt institution run by a set up corrupt people who had absolute power over the slaves. This power had a tendency to absolutely corrupt. It is important to take into account that just because male slave sexual abuse is not talked about does not mean that it did not happen. In itself, it is sexual abuse to have a young boy in a room to watch his mother’s and sisters being raped and molested. One should also remember the agonizing nature of what males had to endure as far as watching their mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives molested and raped by slave owners. It is also important to note that such practices continued after slavery. Some older African Americans are now beginning to speak of the practice of White males coming to their homes and telling them that they would be back to “take” their daughters. This was a common practice, and Black males had to make a choice. Live and take care of their families or die defending the chastity of their daughters. These are instances that may not be documented in written form that have been passed down verbally through the years. There is nothing romantic about slavery or its aftermath; furthermore, it had a detrimental effect of both males and females which can be speculated to have become a persistent hindrance into many African Americans’ modern lives.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Second Ed. Gates, Henry Louis, et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. 385-452. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Second Ed. Gates, Henry Louis, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004. 280-315. Print.