Harriet Jacobs and the "Double Burden" of American Slavery

Article excerpt

Introduction

The ethical, social, and economic issues associated with American slavery remain among the most discussed topics in the study of United States history. Much of what was initially known about the condition of slaves came from antebellum travel accounts, such as those of Frederick Law Olmstead, or from the writings of Southern apologists published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Ulrich B. Phillips. (1) In these early works, slavery, as seen through the eyes of the white community, was characterized as both respectable and necessary. Such accounts often depicted slavery as a benign institution and failed to capture the essence of life for the slave. No significant revisionist accounts appeared until the publication of Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956), but even Stampp admitted, "It may be a little presumptuous of one who has never been a slave to pretend to know how slaves felt." (2)

By the 1970s John W. Blassingame emerged as a premier scholar on American slavery. His most important work, The Slave Community (1979), provided a much better representation of the true conditions of American slavery. In that book's preface, Blassingame writes:

   By concentrating solely on the planter, historians have, in effect,
   been listening to only one side of a complicated debate. The
   distorted view of the plantation which emerges from planter records
   is that of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which strips the
   slave of any meaningful and distinctive culture, family life,
   religion, or manhood. The clearest portrait the planter has drawn
   of the slave is the stereotype of Sambo, a submissive half-man,
   half-child. Such stereotypes are so intimately related to the
   planter's projections, desires, and biases that they tell us little
   about slave behavior and even less about the slave's inner life,
   his thoughts, actions, self concepts, or personality. (3)

Blassingame argues that slaves were significant contributors to both antebellum and post-Civil War Southern culture. This claim rests largely upon actual slave testimonies, often transmitted verbally given the high rate of illiteracy within the slave population. Blassingame's study spawned a new era in the historiography on American slavery. This new group of historians focused on the words of the slaves themselves. One former slave offered "a simple and chastening truth for those who would try to understand the meaning of bondage: 'Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,--tis he who has endured.' 'I was black', he added, 'but I had the feelings of a man as well as any man.'" (4)

The publication of the works of Blassingame and other revisionists prompted students of American slavery to rely increasingly on primary sources produced by slaves themselves, including slave narratives and autobiographies, to understand the institution of slavery as the slaves experienced it. Two early slave narratives stand out as exemplary works not only in their own right, but also as representative of the slave experience as a whole. Frederick Douglass of Maryland and Harriet Jacobs of North Carolina are among that small number of slaves who managed to record their own accounts of their years in bondage. In a time when only ten percent of all slaves could read or write, Douglass and Jacobs each received the gift of learning from sympathetic mistresses who were willing to break the law in order to educate their slaves. (5) The lessons these former slaves learned as children supplemented their natural intelligence, resulting in autobiographies that revealed their inner struggles and experiences as slaves.

Reliance on the writings of Douglass and Jacobs to make historical generalizations concerning American slavery can place a writer in an uncomfortable predicament. One must readily admit that every slave in the United States had a unique story to tell. …