In Incidents in the Life of a …

11 November 2018

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, at first, introduces to the reader two appalling individuals, Dr. Flint and Mrs.

Flint, who are slave owners. Jacobs quickly moves past the obvious message that these two individuals are corrupt, instead she focuses on the system, arguing that slavery pushes white people to become monsters, and that it can be blamed for individual slave owners’ cruelty. She expands on this concept as she suggests that slavery influences white children at a young age, encouraging them to be irresponsible and abusive of their power, and ultimately robbing them of their moral compass. This theft makes it easy for white people to become the perpetrators of violence and abuse, and blinds them to their own victimhood within the system. Once the reader understands the effect the system of slavery has on slave owners, Jacobs returns to the individual, using the character of Mr. Sands as an example of how slavery can take a kind and sympathetic adult white person, and cause them to become heartless towards slaves. Jacobs uses these elements to argue that slavery pushes white people to become monsters, and that the blame for slaves’ suffering should be shifted from the individual slave owners towards the system of slavery, which harms everyone involved.

In Incidents in the Life of a … Essay Example

Initially, it seems that Linda’s master, Dr. Flint, is the “vile monster” who should be blamed for all of her suffering (26). His abominable actions impact Linda in every aspect of her life, and it appears that he is the source of all her problems. This idea is affirmed by Linda’s descriptions of his abuse towards her, as he “tries his utmost to corrupt [Linda’s] pure principles,” and she is “obliged to stand and listen to such language as he s[ees] fit to address to [her]” (26). Unfortunately for Linda, her troubles also extend to her relationship with Mrs. Flint. Linda describes how Mrs.

Flint’s “nerves [a]re so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled” (14). If these awful accounts of Dr. Flint’s and Mrs. Flint’s behavior are isolated, the reader may interpret the message of the book to be that these two people are simply monsters and should be despised. However, the full message of the book is not stuck within the idea that these two people are corrupt–this point is obvious to the reader early on. Rather, Jacobs uses them as examples of how the practice of slavery shapes white people into monsters. Linda explains this concept as she says that “there is no shadow of law to protect [a slave] from insult, from violence, or even from death,” therefore putting the emphasis of her troubles on the lawlessness of slavery, not the slave masters (26, my italics).

Furthemore, she says that “the mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim [the slave], has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage,” showing that slavery’s lawlessness is to blame for both the slave master and mistress’ abuses (26). Jacobs effectively shifts the emphasis of the book’s message from how awful Dr. and Mrs. Flint are as people, to the system that nourishes their lives. Linda explains that “slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks,” as “it makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious,” and “contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched” (46). She declares that “the degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery” should be stopped, but again focuses on the practice of slavery as a whole, not on just the slave masters (26, my italics). Instead of simply blaming Dr.

Flint and Mrs. Flint, Jacobs creates a picture of society in which slavery itself is portrayed as the culprit. It is slavery that allows for white people to act horribly, and even encourages them to do so. The book contains many more of these subtler moments that argue that white people’s horrific actions are caused by the irresponsible power the practice of slavery lends them. One tool Jacobs uses to illustrate the faults of slavery as a whole, is comparing the futures of “two beautiful children playing together,” “one [] a fair white child; the other [] her slave” (28). Linda “hear[s] their joyous laughter” as they “play[] together,” at a time in their life where they are innocent and untouched by slavery’s “blight” (28). She emphasises how “scarcely one day of [the white girl’s] life [is] clouded” to show how slavery puts white children in a situation where they only experience the benefits of slavery and observe no other way of life (28).

In contrast, “the playmate of [the white girl’s] childhood,” the black girl, feels “the inevitable blight” of slavery, and is robbed of her innocent childhood early on (28). This demonstrates that slavery takes children, who may have no prejudices, and puts them in a situation where they experience a racial divide. Because slavery infects children with prejudices, the white children learn the ease that comes with their power, and soon forget their playmates’ humanity. This timeline of children’s lives shows how the practice of slavery is the root of the injustices that occur later on in their lives. Slavery deals white children the upper-hand at birth, robs them of their morals, and only exposes them to the cheery parts of life, essentially encouraging them to become power-crazed monsters like Dr. Flint. Jacobs gives the reader an understanding of slavery that no slaveholder could ever have.

As Linda explains, “few slaveholders seem to be aware of the widespread moral ruin occasioned by this wicked system” (46).After demonstrating to the reader how the system of slavery is responsible for depraved individuals’ actions, Jacobs returns to an individual, Mr. Sands, to reflect the reader’s new understanding of how the broader system shapes character. Specifically, Jacobs uses him as an example of how ignorant slave owners are to slavery’s faults, and how slavery can make formerly kind and humane slave owners, cruel and immoral. At first, Mr. Sands appears to be Linda’s savior, as she is “flatter[ed]” by “so much attention from [him]” and feels “grateful for his sympathy” (48). He continues to display kindness and sympathy, as he “promise[s] to care for [Linda’s] child, and to buy [Linda],” leading the reader to think that he might be the exception of a good slave owner (51).

However, his reaction to William escaping from him proves that he too is unaware of slavery’s monstrosities. He claims that William only ran away because “he’s young and inconsiderate” and was “urged away by abolitionists,” proving himself to be “ungrateful” “for [Mr. Sands’] kindness” (112). Mr. Sands is so self-assured in his good conscience, that he goes so far as to “feel confident that [William] will soon return to [him],” showing that he truly considers himself to be free of guilt (112). William later gives his reasons for leaving, that Mr. Sands “might indefinitely postpone the promise he [makes] to give [William] his freedom,” and thus exposes Mr.

Sands’ lack of sympathy for slaves’ desire for freedom (112). He has a relaxed time frame of “five years” to free William, but fails to understand how William would suffer during this time, and the lack of security simply “trust[ing] in [Mr. Sands]” brings to his life (112). Mr. Sands also fails to understands Linda’s request for her children’s freedom, as he claims that “the children are free,” and he considers their contractual freedom a “formalit[y] of law,” again missing Linda’s lack of “trust in [] Slavery!” (114). While Mr. Sands may consider the children’s written freedom just a “formalit[y] of law,” Linda can only “know peace [when her] children [are] emancipated with all due formalities of law” (114, my italics).

Jacobs uses Mr. Sands as an example of how slavery warps seemingly good white people into unsympathetic masters, and to show how white people have no understanding of slaves’ desire for freedom. At first the reader appreciates him, as he helps and sympathizes with Linda; but after he becomes upset with William for running away, the reader quickly sees that his participation in the system has changed him, and has given him a distaste for freeing his slaves. Sands is “surprise[d]” to hear that Linda is asking for her children’s emancipation, as he considers them to be free, ignoring the fact that their legal status is that of a slave (114). When we think of slavery, we think of black and white, clear divides. These divides include not only those between races, but between individuals and the system. Jacobs captures the importance of the individual as she writes about the Flints cruelties.

She then refocuses the reader’s attention to the system, as she claims that slavery causes the Flints to act in such ways. Finally, when Jacobs writes about Mr. Sands she combines the two, taking the perspective of the system and applying it to an individual’s character. When Sands is debating with Linda about the legal status of the children, the reader forgets that these are his own children, he should not be focusing on the law surrounding them, but rather loving them. Yet, the system dehumanizes his relationship with them, and as a result of this, the reader dehumanizes Mr. Sands as a cruel slaveholder who is just accepting the system. Jacobs’ message is that we cannot focus on the individual and ignore the system that raises them, but at the same time, we cannot dehumanize the individual slaveholders by portraying them as only existing in the system.

The system of slavery is personal, but the people living under it are formed by the system.

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