Harriet Jacobs’ Challenge to the Cult of True Womanhood

A while back, I wrote a post about the ways that Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, challenges the Cult of True Womanhood. Specifically, she counters it by showing the ways that society denied her the chance to adhere to the four pillars of the Cult of True Womanhood. Thinking about this some more, I want to briefly look at the ways that Jacobs’ text lays bare the ways that the institution of slavery denied Jacobs and other enslaved women of achieving the label “woman,” thus denying them humanity and citizenship in the process.

9From the outset, Jacobs positions herself as a woman within a system that denies her humanity. She tells her readers, “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.” Here, Jacobs does not separate herself from the women reading her text; rather, she joins with them through her use of “women at the South.” She could have said “those still in slavery” or just “those still in bondage.” Through the deployment of the word “women,” Jacobs exhorts her audience to see her as equal, thus evoking the popular abolitionist image showing an enslaved woman pleading with an invisible person, “Am I not a woman and a sister?”

Jacobs’ narrative chronicles her life in bondage and the attempts by her master, Dr. Norcum, to rape her on various occasions. Throughout, Jacobs makes readers aware of the “monstrous features,” as Lydia Maria Child labels them, that enslaved women encountered on a daily basis. Enslaved women, and even Black women who were not enslaved, encountered countless stereotypes regarding their sexuality, specifically that, unlike white women who were “pure,” Black women were hypersexual. Alice Walker writes,

For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment — at the hands of white “gentlemen” — of “beautiful”, young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this.

Enslaved women became producers of property for their master because the child followed the mother. So, if the mother is enslaved, the child will be too. I recall looking through the archives at my university and coming across a slave ledger. The ledger contained births. A mother’s name accompanied each child, and there were names for the fathers as well. However, for a number of the children, the father was labeled “unknown.” The absence of a father’s name leads me to think that the father was the woman’s master, thus raping her to produce more “chattel” for his coffers.

We see an instance of this atrocity in Jacobs’ narrative when she writes about Dr. Norcum whipping an enslaved man. (This scene recalls, in some ways, Frederick Douglass witnessing his Aunt Hester being whipped. That is another discussion.) Jacobs does not know, exactly, why Norcum whips the man. One of the rumors was, she says, that the man stole some corn from Norcum. The other rumor was that the man “had quarreled with his wife, in the presence of the overseer, and had accused his master of being the father of her child. They were both black, and the child was very fair.” Even though the man is angry, by accusing Norcum, the man exerts his humanity by proclaiming he can marry someone of his own volition. By raping the woman, Norcum grants her some form of humanity; however, he strips that away by refusing to acknowledge the child.

After this short anecdote, Jacobs begins to describe the troubles she endured as an enslaved woman. These began when she turned fifteen, “a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl,” when Norcum began to take notice of her and “whisper foul words in [her] ear.” Jacobs could not tell anyone about Norcum’s licentious advances because if she did, Norcum could deny them easily. If Jacobs attempted to go to her mistress, her mistress, whether she believed Jacobs or not, could not do anything because in confronting Norcum, she would grant Jacobs humanity and thus counter the foundations of the institution of slavery.

In another short anecdote, Jacobs ties her position in with that of an enslaved child she sees playing with her white sister. She writes,

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. 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. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.

How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink.

Here, we see an echo of the man whom Norcum whipped as well. Does the enslaved child’s father acknowledge her? Does he allow her to play with he “fair white child” because he feels a connection with her? It is unclear. What is clear, though, is that the future paths of the children differ greatly. The “fair white child” will grown into “womanhood” while the enslaved child will “[drink] the cup of sin, and shame, and misery ” through the sexual violence that her master and other white men will enact upon her. Thus, she will not achieve “womanhood,” she will experience “shame.”

The sad thing is that these differences still exist today in different forms. Trimiko Melancon writes about the contemporary and historical connections of sexual violence against Black women in her essay “‘Left exposed to view!’: Black Women and Sexualized Violence.”  She concludes by arguing that we need to remember stories such as Jacobs’ “because when we only construct Black men as subjects victimized by police and state-sanctioned violence, it convolutes history, presenting it in a Black masculinist fashion” ignoring the violence and trauma enacted upon Black women.

This is not an extensive post, and there is a lot more that we need to discuss. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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