What I Learned from Reading Slave Narratives

 

Harriet_Ann_Jacobs1894

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, 1861

You should not read this post; you should just read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I can tell you that my heart hurt when I read Harriet Jacobs’ account of her life, but you need to feel that for yourself. You need to spend some time thinking about the white men who raped their slaves and then enslaved their own children. It’s not enough to just contemplate the fact that this happened, you need to hear from a woman who lived under these circumstances. Harriet Jacobs recounts living in terror from age fifteen, which was when her “master” began threatening her sexually. I could tell you how I feel about that, but you shouldn’t hear it from me, you should hear it from her.

You should think about the enslaved fathers who had no power to protect their wives and children from being raped. You should think about the mothers who felt that the only reason to keep living was their children and yet prayed that their children would die as infants rather than live as slaves.

I can tell you that Harriet Jacobs’ fear of being raped was so great that she hid in a crawlspace barely bigger than a coffin for seven years until she could escape to the North, but you need to hear it from her. Her words as she describes listening to the voices of her children below her, but being unable to talk to them or hold them are more important than the words you are reading right now.

This is such an important book. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the only firsthand accounts of slavery from a woman’s perspective. Just before the commencement of the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs began publishing her account of her life serially in The New York Tribune, but her very veiled descriptions of sexual harassment were deemed unsuitable for publication. At that time white women were protected from even knowing about the acts of violence that a man could legally commit against his black slaves.

Facts about the history of slavery are horrifying. Yet, it’s too easy to shudder at a line in a textbook and pass on the next sentence, the next chapter, the next thought, without truly contemplating the meaning of slavery for the enslaved. When we study history, we spend too much time on the lives of great men, and not enough time on the lives of the people. Personally, I think the best measure for evaluating the greatness of a historical figure is by the effect their actions had on the quality of life of the people within their power. All of the people within their power. No slave owner should be held up as a great man or woman.

I’m losing focus and I’m getting very tense. I am going to stop writing, because I am not important. Harriet Jacobs is important. If you are from the US or live in the US, you need to read this book.

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Everybody Needs to Read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

If you haven’t read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or you haven’t read it in a long time, you should read it. It will make you feel terrible, but you should read it. It has a happy ending.

I read this book when I was a child and while I really wasn’t able to process or understand the cruelty that Douglass witnessed and endured as a slave, I was inspired by the strength of his character. As an adult, the facts of Douglass’ early life are much more gut-wrenchingly horrific, and his ability to retain a sense of personal worth and dignity are even more admirable.

No rags-to-riches story in the canon of English fiction is more dramatic than the true story of Frederick Douglass’ life. As a child he was separated from his mother. He suspected that his white owner was his father, but this was never acknowledged. He was barely fed and given one shirt per year as clothing. During winter, on “the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his owner began to teach him to read, until her husband made her stop, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read. With dogged determination and resourcefulness, Douglass secretly continued to teach himself how to read. He read abolitionist tracts. He became more enraged at the cruel injustice of slavery and more determined to be free.

Look, I was going to keep writing, but I don’t actually want to say much about this book. You don’t need to hear it from me, you should hear it from Frederick Douglass himself. The entire purpose of a “slave narrative” is to learn about oppression from the oppressed, instead of getting your information second hand. Besides, Douglass is way more eloquent than I am. Every line in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass agitates my emotions.

I have admired Frederick Douglass for a long time. I think he possibly lived the most admirable life of any American ever.

I didn’t dress up as Frederick Douglass, because that didn’t seem respectful and racial politics are complicated. What I did do was visit the house where he lived in Washington, D.C. which is a historical site now. If you live in or are visiting the D.C. area, you should go to the site and learn about this man. Ironically, his house is very close to a school where I taught. A school in which 98% of students are African American and 14% of students are proficient in reading. Frederick Douglass’ work is not done.

One other thing I must mention, Douglass spoke out vehemently about the false Christianity of the slaveholders. In his experience, religious slaveholders were the most cruel. I probably don’t need to warn any of my readers about the way religion is still used in this country as a justification for hatred, oppression and cruelty towards minorities. But, here’s an excellent quote for good measure:

“Men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

Beware of religious revivalism. It saves no souls.

Here are some  more quotes:

Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.

It’s easier to build strong children then repair broken men.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Final thoughts:

Just read it. It’s not very long. It’s in the public domain, so you can get it for free. No excuses, just read it.