Figures of Orality: The Master, the Mistress, the Slave Mother in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself

Article excerpt

On the title page of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl we find two important quotations. The first indicts Northerners for their ignorance of "the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY," while the second constructs the audience as Northern, white daughters who must hear Jacobs's voice: "Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters!"[1] Echoing Isaiah's ministerial words, Jacobs seizes the authority to speak from her experience as slave and as mother, capitalizing on Victorian culture's sanctification of motherhood. Ironically, from her sexual "fall" comes her voice, an abolitionist voice the slave mother is depending on her white, Northern, female readers to find within themselves. It is crucial that her readers be positioned as "careless," unknowing female bodies, for Jacobs's strategy is to coerce daughterly readers into a fall from their innocence by taking them through the sexual fall of the representative slave girl, imagined in precisely the terms of Eve's fall from the Garden:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. . . . The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. . . . [The slave sister] drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (29)

Jacobs retells this Biblical myth in terms of race; the patriarch's two children play in Edenic innocence, but the white girl thrives in her protected garden while the black child is raped by the slaveholders, creatures Jacobs repeatedly links with serpents in the "plantation" of Victorian America. Notice how she represents the slave girl's encounters with sexual knowledge through oral metaphors. Doing so allows her to construct what Julia Stern calls a perverse human food chain, a feeding economy controlled by those who own land and black bodies.[2] In the terms of a feeding economy, both land and black bodies are fertile, food-yielding and consumable.

This emphasis on the oral speaks directly to "the depth of degradation in that word, SLAVERY." To be forced to consume, to be consumed, is to be raped and silenced. The mouth stands in as the site of oppression in Jacobs's narrative, a site of vulnerable openness. But the oral is a source of tremendous power in the African-American female tradition, bringing to mind the West African origin of sass, traced by Joanne Braxton: "A decoction of the bark of this [sassy tree] was used in West Africa as an ordeal poison in the trial of accused witches, women spoken of as being wives of Exu, the trickster god" (31). Braxton references the words of Amanda Smith, who recounts how sass was used in a poisonous drink that the accused witch would be compelled to drink, uncannily reminiscent of Jacobs's description of the slave girl, "compelled to drink the cup of sin" by her sexually licentious master. Sass is thus associated with the witch, or unorthodox female power, and with both speech and consumption. Such duality underlies the oral paradigm that frames Linda Brent's conflictual relationships with Dr. Flint, Mrs. Flint, and her grandmother, relationships replete with both nourishing and poisonous food imagery. Repetitive food imagery asks us to compare these relationships, weaving them together more closely than we might like to admit. Jacobs imagines the oral as ordering the terrain of two rival relationships in the text: the law sanctioned master-slave economy and its most potent rival, the mother-daughter bond. We might miss the echoing tensions in these relationships without a close reading of oral metaphor. Mirroring the master-slave economy, the mother-daughter bond ultimately models the author-reader relationship that Jacobs constructs by framing her readers as daughters. The empowerment of Jacobs's "daughterly" reader depends upon the reader's recognition that relationships between women are similarly structured to perverse master-slave relations; with that recognition the reader can choose how to exert her power. …