Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Freudian Reading of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Freudian Reading of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Article excerpt

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them.

--George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters, 113

With her now famous lines informing her readers that she and other former slaves could have told a different tale about slavery, Harriet Jacobs referred explicitly to the master discourse on slavery in the nineteenth century. In their power to represent slavery as they wished it to be seen, slavocrats like George Fitzhugh demonstrated what Foucault pronounced, in another context in Madness and Civilization, a systematic operation of social and political repression where madness "is responsible only for that part of itself which is visible. All the rest is reduced to silence. Madness no longer exists except as seen" (250). Appearing to live up to the ego ideal of themselves as benevolent owners of slaves who lived with their masters in a community of white and black "families," slavocrats willfully deluded themselves in their neurotic reversal of reality. Freud's concept of the ego ideal, which appears as a paradigm of human perfection, one "that is expected of the higher nature of man," is a component of the superego ("The Ego and the Id" 643). With its positive and authoritative parental qualities and values of decency, honor, and integrity, the superego, similar to the ego ideal, captures the projected image of the master-slave relationship as imbibed romantically in the southern ethos of paternalism. But the ego ideal lacks the superego's parental powers of constraint and becomes a defense mechanism for slavocrats and slave society, denying the conscience proponent of the superego that would be more punitive toward bad behavior.

Countering the master narrative on race and slavery and exploding the myth of the ego ideal, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) rips the veil off slavery's madness. Jacobs exposes the pathological nature of slavery as a peculiar rather than benign institution. "I am not disposed to paint their condition so rose-colored as the Hon. Miss Murray paints the condition of the slaves in the United States," she remarks in a comparison of slaves and the oppressed poor in England (208). The genre of the slave narrative and Jacobs' slave status in Edenton, North Carolina, where she was born in 1813, enabled her to record for her generation and posterity the sexualization of slavery as a severe form of its neuroses, as I will argue. Jacobs' pre-eminent scholar and biographer Jean Fagan Yellin cites Incidents as "the only slave narrative that takes as its subject the sexual exploitation of female slaves--thus centering on sexual oppression as well as on oppression of race and condition" ("Texts and Contexts" 262-263). In Harriet Jacobs, A Life, Yellin repeats her call for an assessment of Jacobs as the "representative" woman of the nineteenth century because she "shap[ed] her past from a private tale of shame of a 'slave girl' into a public testimony against a tyrannical system" (157).

The locus of Incidents is indeed on Jacobs' enslaved, sexed body as legally defined property as, for example, Dr. Flint reminds and threatens her, "Do you know that I have a right to do as I like with you, that I can kill you, if I please?" (Jacobs 41). Propertied bodies of slave girls often became sexed bodies after puberty, as Jacobs relates in describing her fifteenth year as "a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl" (26). Like other black enslaved Americans struggling for self-definition, Jacobs experienced the constricted space of race and identity on a southern plantation where her sexuality played a fundamental role in her life as a vulnerable female slave, destined for early motherhood, but without its rights and privileges. Owned and claimed by Incidents' Dr. Flint, Jacobs' sexed body emerges as a trope for the ascribed identity of female slaves and the institutionalization of slavery's erotic as well as neurotic character. …

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