Academic journal article African American Review

"The Laws Were Laid Down to Me Anew": Harriet Jacobs and the Reframing of Legal Fictions

Academic journal article African American Review

"The Laws Were Laid Down to Me Anew": Harriet Jacobs and the Reframing of Legal Fictions

Article excerpt

The narrative of Harriet Jacobs's life in slavery and eventual escape, published the year the Civil War began, poses a political argument that both condemns the laws of slavery and critiques dominant standards of (white) womanhood. As a literary text, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has helped to reshape the genre of the slave narrative, previously discussed and defined primarily through male-authored texts.(1) In gaining recognition and prominence, both in critical studies and in course syllabi, Jacobs in many ways has come to represent "the" female slave narrator. This focus has been useful to emphasize family, constructions of womanhood, sexuality, female community, and other issues often de-emphasized or treated differently by male narrators. At the same time, there is a risk of reductiveness, of using Jacobs's multifaceted text only to discuss supposedly "female" concerns.(2) In addition to and intersecting with such issues is Jacobs's sustained legal critique, articulated on literal and figurative levels throughout her narrative. In the crucial years before the outbreak of civil war, Harriet Jacobs engaged in the legal debates over human enslavement. In Incidents, she reframes and rearticulates legal and cultural discourses of slavery and womanhood to uncover their fictive construction. Jacobs does not merely replace fiction with truth; instead, she calls on her readers to pay attention to framing (legal and otherwise) and to put into the frame erased perspectives.

As a multiply disfranchised subject, Jacobs writes against the dominant voices of Southern slave law and of the law itself. Antebellum legal scholars, like her contemporary Thomas Cobb (a Georgian who wrote the fundamental Southern treatise on slave law), framed their defenses of slavery in the falsely neutral and universal terms of legal rationality and precedent, while discrediting or omitting slave voices.(3) In numerous and varied ways, the laws of slavery attempted to erase and silence African Americans, to deny their subjectivity, to say they did not exist as individuals. Laws governing legal testimony, racial identity, literacy, miscegenation, rape, and reproduction defined slaves and African Americans in specific yet contradictory ways - as nonhuman, with dangerous sexuality and nonexistent subjectivity. These legal and political fictions were just that - constructed fictions - but they have had tremendous power. Analyzing legal, political, and literary discourses of slavery can help deconstruct these fictions and their power (which did not vanish with emancipation). This article examines nineteenth-century statutes and Thomas Cobb's 1858 legal treatise alongside Harriet Jacobs's critique of slave law in order to probe contradictions in discourses of slavery and to demystify legal fictions more broadly.

Part of the power of legal discourse is its pretense at objectivity, neutrality, and rationality. The legal system attempts to make its workings and maneuvers invisible. Exposing instabilities and slippages, as Harriet Jacobs does in her narrative, helps to demystify these workings, not just in slave law but in its descendants as well. Legal scholar Angela Harris argues that introducing multiple voices and shifting perspectives as a theoretical approach to both law and literature can help dislodge this appearance of neutrality. In "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory," Harris argues for "multiple consciousness" as an antidote to disciplinary restrictions in the voices of law and literature. It is crucial, she argues, not to let either possible extreme - the single "neutral" voice of law or the lack of context of literature-narrow the scope. While law and literature often are seen as occupying completely different spaces, challenging these boundaries can illuminate the study of both disciplines. Harris discusses literary and legal scholars who "struggle against their discipline s grain,"(4) and she argues for the need "to understand both legal and literary discourse as the complex struggle and unending dialogue between these voices. …

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