Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs is a literary piece that speaks towards the “peculiar phase” of slavery in the history of American culture, this “peculiar phase” being the sexual abuse of African- American female slaves by their slave owners.
It was not peculiar for a white slave- owning, married male to lay down with his slaves, enlist them against their will as his sex slaves, concubines and mistresses, and then impregnate them. It was not peculiar or unusual for these men to see their own actions as essential to the multiplication of their livestock. It was not peculiar for these men to justify their actions through the belief that they were simply making good use out of their own property. It was not uncommon or peculiar for a “gentleman” to put his marriage, his reputation, and the lives of innocent women and children of both races in jeopardy for the sake of sexual pleasure and the need to feel physically, emotionally and mentally dominant over those who were virtually helpless due to their circumstances. It most certainly was a phase, the likes of which passed along with the “phase” of legal bondage. Despite this, both of these “phases” affected a great multitude of people, and continue to affect and afflict humanity in different forms even today.
Why then, is this particular aspect of slavery called so “peculiar”? Not because it happened seldom, or because nobody knew it was happening, but because very few people chose to publicly acknowledge it as something that was harmful to these victims of lust. Sex in general was a taboo topic- be it between white men and women, black men and women, or interracial. Speaking about, writing about or even implying it was something that made everyone involved uncomfortable. In fact, in order to write this slave narrative, Jacobs herself had to resort to word choice that alludes to and implies, rather than outwardly expresses, occurrences of sexual and domestic violence against slave women:
“But I now entered on my fifteenth year– a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifferent or contempt… He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of… He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things”(Jacobs, 26).
Extremely careful not to disgust her audience too much that they would not read her work, Jacobs spends a majority of her time painting an abstract picture in the minds of her readers as to what is really going on between Dr. Flint & Linda. Reading Incidents, we feel uncomfortable, and we sympathize with this group of Southern women who, through this narrative, hope to appeal to their sisters in the North to help cease these wrongdoings which destroyed the fabric of female life, both slave and free.
During this time period, and for a considerable part of history, it was typical to maintain decorum when writing about relations between the sexes. However, graphic sexual depictions are not a rare sight in modern culture.
Over the summer, while I was taking care of my ever growing “books that I should read but never have time to read” list, my mother approached me with a book of her own.
“Do you or any of your friends want to read it, I got to page 123 and I thought it was so boring and stupid. Maybe one of you will find it more exciting, but I dunno. I think it sucks and I don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal out of this crap, or why they’re even making a movie out of this, so boring. Here, take it- if you or none of your friends want it, I’ll just give it away. I don’t need it.”
She left the book on my dresser, and later on in the day when I took a break from my leisurely reading, I picked it up to check it out.
50 Shades of Grey.
Seriously? Was my mother seriously telling me, a 19 year- old girl, to pick up this apparently super sensual, pseudo- pornographic(or maybe it really is, who knows?!) book that has had people all over social media both raving and slamming it for months on end to see if I like it? Talking about anything even remotely relating to sex with my parents makes me inherently uncomfortable, and yet here I was with this book in my hand? Wow, okay… I must have one hell of a cool mom if she’s telling me to either read it or pass it on to one of my friends.
And another thing: One of the biggest, sexiest cultural phenomena to hit the 20-teens, and my mom was bored of it? How on earth does that even happen?
(Spoiler Alert: I felt that it was just as stupid and boring as she said it was, and also SO painfully cliché from top to bottom. I got to maybe page 180, & I’m pretty sure it’s still sitting on my dresser back home and hasn’t been passed off into another pair of unfortunate hands since.)
I’ll tell you how something like that happens: The way that America sees sex, sexuality, domestic and sexual abuse has totally shifted. In the time of Harriet Jacobs, that type of writing wouldn’t even come out of the mind of any self- respecting individual, male OR female, let alone ever make it to the printing press. Readers would have been so utterly mortified and embarrassed for themselves, each other and the author that some would have probably died from it. If any person had heard that my mother even suggested it to me, she’d be seen as a morally corrupt mother and an impure woman with inappropriate and impure thoughts. And for even trying to read it, especially at my age, which was so crucial for marriage and childbirth, I might as well have been considered a loose or fallen woman.
But today, discussion relating to sex is so much more open- movies, books, strip clubs… we pay money to attain sex- related things. We talk about who we want to get with to our friends, we sing songs about it, and we wear clothes that promote it. And none of it is implied, it’s all painfully and graphically explicit, much like 50 Shades, Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, and men’s graphic t- shirts that read, “I pull out”. As much as sex is glorified, its publicity also brings to the forefront abuses relating to it. And especially in this case, any publicity is good publicity.
50 Shades of Grey created such an uproar partially because some readers felt that it glorifies submissiveness and makes acceptable possibly dangerous sexual scenarios between the sexes. As if to say, “Yeah, whips and chains and being pinned down against my will is all good and dandy, even if sometimes I don’t want it, because it’s during sex. And what person nowadays doesn’t want to have sex?” Popular culture also presents to us “Chris Brown & Rhianna” scenarios, children long held captive as sex slaves released from torment as adults, and countless videos, posts, and organizations against domestic abuse and sexual violence. As much as we love sex, there’s also a whole lot that goes along with it to potentially hate. And currently, that part is getting much too hard to hide under the rug. We have a lot more Sigmund Freuds writing out there than we do Harriet Jacobses- I think that the more these issues continue to occur(which I’m hoping they will not), the more we’re going to hear about them. In detail.
I think we can thank this shift from the America of Harriet Jacobs to the America of 50 Shades in part to writers like Harriet Jacobs, who although they denied it up and down, had serious writing talent that was able to get across ideas of gross injustices and atrocities of humanity to the public, without overly- exposing them. Without pen- holders who had the guts and determination to make societal problems known in any ways their time era would enable them to, we would not have those people today who feel completely comfortable in sharing the minutia of their sexual escapades with you, whether you want them to or not. Although now we’re dealing with the issue of how much talk about sex is too much talk about sex(baby), we’re also dealing with problem solving in order to eradicate the occurrences of crimes so sexually terrifying that we wonder if we can even trust our spouse with us in the bedroom.
So, next time you’re reading some super steamy fan- fiction about your favorite t.v. characters, singing a Pitbull song about “doin’ it” in the back of the a darkened nightclub, or watching another news report on domestic violence, give a shout- out to men and ladies like Jacobs, who didn’t care about talking about sex almost as much as we don’t.
“Fifty Shades of Grey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Jacobs, Harriet A., Lydia Maria Child, and Jean Fagan. Yellin. “Page 26.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. N. pag. Print.