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

By Washington, Margaret | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Washington, Margaret, The Journal of African American History


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.