"From Motives of Delicacy": Sexuality and Morality in the Narratives of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs

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In 1850 the unlettered reformer Sojourner Truth published a narrative of her life in bondage, which she dictated to Garrisonian abolitionist Olive Gilbert. In explaining that she was excising certain information from Sojourner's story, Gilbert wrote that "our heroine" endured "a long series of trials," which were not "for the public ear by their very nature." Hence, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth was silent on particular travails of slavery, "from motives of delicacy" and fear that "relation of them might inflict undeserved pain on some now living." If Sojourner's Narrative appeared "tame" to the reader, Olive Gilbert added, it was "not for want of facts," but from "various motives suppressed." In 19th-century language, Gilbert was explaining that she purposely omitted sexual improprieties. Such coded expressions in Sojourner's 1850 Narrative leaves much unsaid when compared to the explicit sexual admissions in formerly enslaved Harriet Jacobs's life story, which appeared over a decade later. On the eve of the Civil War, Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself with editorial "advise and assistance" from noted abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child. Indeed, Child's name, not Jacobs's appeared on the title page. "I am well aware," wrote Child, "that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others call indelicate." Jacobs herself admitted that certain details of her life should only be whispered "into the ear of a very dear friend."(1)

Both narratives of female bondage invoke a literary genre similar to normative, sentimental novels. They are also within the melodramatic style of most antislavery autobiographies, complete with classic physical and emotional brutality, a transforming experience, a heroic slave mother, and the subject finding her voice--all overseen by the white editor, in these cases a female reformer. (2) Nonetheless, literary scholars in particular tend to dismiss the Narrative of Sojourner Truth in comparison to Jacobs's life story. Hazel V. Carby's Reconstruction Womanhood has an excellent chapter on slave women and mistresses, which does not mention Sojourner's Narrative. Nor does Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery. Jean Fagan Yellin is among a few exceptions. She wrote that the outspoken 19th-century activist, Sojourner Truth, "articulated her autonomy in all major ways but one. Conspicuously absent from her speeches, her Narrative, and her Book of Life is any discussion of sexuality." This, observed Yellin, is in contradistinction to Harriet Jacobs, who publicly admitted her sexual indiscretions. Some years ago, Jean Yellin rescued, authenticated, and historicized Jacobs's largely forgotten story, which Jacobs wrote under the pseudonym of "Linda Brent." There is no question, as there was for many years, about the validity and authorship of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. However, because Sojourner Truth dictated her life story, recounted northern rather than southern slavery, and because she was not openly revelatory on sexuality, her Narrative is often ignored, accused of being too sanitized, and even declared a secondary rather than a primary source of information. (3)

In the process of researching for Sojourner's biography, my examination of her historical background confirms the accuracy of her early life as written in her Narrative, and the significance of her story as a primary source for referencing black bondage in the rural North. Nonetheless, the absence of a discussion of sexuality in Sojourner's Narrative, compared to Jacobs openly confronting the issue, warrants deeper exploration, but certainly not dismissal of Sojourner's story. Moral imperatives and coded historical meaning of sexual representations should be strongly considered as influencing the writing of both narratives. …