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Her Voice, Her Word, Her Decision: An Examination of the Use of Speech in the Female Slave Narrative

Kiambra Griffin

Kiambra Griffin is from Harlem, New York. She is an undeclared Africana Studies major and Communications minor. On campus, Kiambra is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the historian of the Black Student Coalition, the sustainability chair of Patterson Court Council, and the manager of the Davidson Women’s Basketball team. Her interests include sports media and broadcasting because she wants to bridge the gap between women and sports media. She hopes to work for ESPN in the future. Her essay was written for Dr. Hillard’s Writing 101: Racism and White Privilege.

Women continue to struggle against their diminished social roles in the United States, a condition inherited from the nineteenth century,when women were confined to the household, expected to keep order in the home and care for children.1 The so-called “woman’s sphere” included the set of actions and relationships that would nourish the family, the social unit that would most benefit from sustained maternal care. The man in the home had access to the world of education, politics, and the workforce, while women were removed from public communities of discourse, delimiting their participation in intellectual discussions. The sexist-sponsored woman’s sphere constrained the female voice. Narratives of women’s lives went unpublished and authentic experiential accounts went largely unheard. Written accounts of slaves’ experiences were similarly constrained. Few testimonies were made public due to racist prohibitions and widespread misconceptions about African Americans’ rhetorical powers. When they were published in the North, narratives such as those composed by Frederick Douglass empowered abolitionists, who used his discourses to exemplify the co-equal status of white and black men. As a man, Douglass was expected to speak strongly and loudly. His entrance into the public sphere was welcomed by abolitionists as the free speech of a U.S. citizen.

However, the narratives of female slaves were not met with the same praise, even among abolitionist-minded white northern readers. Add to this the fact that her experience, like most other female slaves, involved navigating the advances of slaveholders, and one can appreciate the hazards of her role as a public writer. The history of slavery reveals that both men and women were subject to verbal, physical, and emotional abuse, however, female experiences of abuse were largely motivated by the sexual impulses of white slaveholders who desired them in a capacity very different from the way they desired their own wives. Seen as exotic or as pliant sexual prey, female slaves were vulnerable to various forms of sexual abuse that could not be uttered in public–at least not without spoiling the identity of the revealer. To keep gendered values of chastity and propriety in tact, female slaves were restricted to a world of silence.L5Ma7ZjB7swVmxQar4j2cvGWoYpbkImNmBpaun4h_D4-300x168 Her Voice, Her Word, Her Decision: An Examination of the Use of Speech in the Female Slave Narrative

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl highlight despicable conditions and mistreatment under the system of slavery, but their production and reception differ. Douglass praises his new-found literacy, which bolsters his self-conception as a rights-bearing citizen. His strong voice and intellectual text go far in making him “a man.” His public self is ennobled by discourse. His effective persuasion gains him standing and status. Jacobs, for whom access to the public sphere is delimited both by her race and her gender, must tread softly into public view. Her work is punctuated by apologies for being forthright, for truth-telling, for speaking itself. It is her keen ability to negotiate her publicity, to locate a voice that will allow her to be heard, that deserves close attention. Her experience as a public writer is complex and entangled in both courage and hesitancy, but deserves full attention as a robust rhetorical act nonetheless.

American Studies scholar Winifred Morgan differentiates male from female slave narratives, focusing on what she believes are key distinctions between Douglass’ and Jacobs’ use of literacy (and writing) as modes of resistance. She finds that male slaves like Douglass highlight reading and writing as formative skills necessary to putting them on the path to freedom, but that female slaves depend not upon discourse but rather on their social and emotional relationships with others to give them a sense of personhood. As Morgan puts this:

The drive to become literate appears to be gender-based; unlike the narratives written by men, women’s narratives do not emphasize this factor. While male narrators accentuate the role of literacy, females stress the importance of relationships. Given the importance of relationships in the lives of most women, this is hardly surprising.2

Morgan emphasizes the reliance of female slave narratives on the development of networks to contend with the struggles of slavery, while male narrators demonstrated their right to autonomy through their use of literacy. But, does such an approach do justice to her uses of writing to thwart attacks, to shelter her children from harm, and to establish her own rights?

Harriet Jacobs’ work, for example, was met with suspicion and hostility. Her public voice, rather than welcomed as civic free speech, was heard as inappropriate or even transgressive.

By simplifying Jacobs’ drive for freedom, autonomy, and resistance to oppression as facilitated by relationships, Morgan ignores her complex strategy of using communication as a means of resistance. Rightly so, Jacobs finds that her relationships with family and other slaves are important to her social development, but they are not necessary to determine her escape for slavery. I am interested in Jacobs’ ability to reclaim her voice in the midst of a silencing environment. A close examination of the narrative allows us to appreciate a vital dimension of the female slave experience in the omnipresence of the slaveholder: the use of voice and speech to hinder the slaveholder’s ability to use his authority to its fullest extent.

In her adolescence, Jacobs finds herself entangled and constrained by the sexual desires of her owner, Dr. Flint. She describes being placed in an impossible bind because she is a woman under the control of a forceful man. Either way, Jacobs found the courage to use her voice against Dr. Flint’s sexist voice. Risking her very life to challenge Dr. Flint’s authority, Jacobs “talks back” with wit and irony:

There was silence for some minutes. Perhaps he was deciding what should be my punishment; or, perhaps, he wanted to give me time to reflect on what I had said, and to whom I had said it. Finally, he asked, “Do you know what you have said?” “Yes sir; but your treatment drove me to it.” “Do you know that I have a right to do as I like with you, –that I can kill you, if I please?” “You have tried to kill me, and I wish you had; but you have no right to do as you like with me.” “I know I have been disrespectful sir,” I replied; “but you drove me to it; I couldn’t help it. As for jail, there would be more peace there for me than there is here.”3

Despite the operations of racism and sexism, Jacobs manages to voice her honest opinion to Dr. Flint, knowing that he would expect her to be silent. It is important that Jacobs knows when to use her voice and when to remain silent, strategically silent, even when ordered to respond. We should remember, however, that Jacobs’ exercisesL5Ma7ZjB7swVmxQar4j2cvGWoYpbkImNmBpaun4h_D4-300x168 Her Voice, Her Word, Her Decision: An Examination of the Use of Speech in the Female Slave Narrative her voice with sharp critique, knowing that she will likely not be harmed by Flint because he is interested in keeping her desirable body in tact. Quite problematically, sexism “protects” her. Her voice can be used only because of the slaveholders’ abusive attraction and sexual interest. Slaves were expected to remain silent in the presence of whites unless directed to respond.  If slaves chose to remain silent when questioned, they were abused or murdered for their disobedience.

Jacobs’ use of silence is strategic. Given Flint’s obsession with her, withholding key information throws his singular desire into chaos so that silence in this context operates as a kind of speech.  To say nothing is to say something very powerful.

He ordered me to stand before him. I obeyed. “I command you,” said he, “to tell me whether the father of your child is white or black.” I hesitated. “Answer me this instant!” he exclaimed. I did answer. He sprang upon me like a wolf, and grabbed my arm as if he would have broken it. “Do you love him?” said he, in a hissing tone. “I am thankful that I do not despise him,” I replied.4

Not only does Jacobs choose not explicitly to answer Dr. Flint, she also forces the reader to fathom her choice not to speak, whether it is to keep the identity of the father discrete for a time in fear for his safety, or to sustain her personal integrity in the face of violation. When she does reveal her lover’s name, she retains discursive power by turning Flint’s desperation (“Do you love him?”) on its ear by redefining love as “not despising” someone. Troublingly, Morgan downplays Jacobs’ use of language, implicitly defining slave literacy as “the use of reading and writing to distract her enemy.”5 But certainly literacy in Jacobs’ case should be extended to speech, especially given Jacobs’ keen skills at parody, irony, and other forms of stylistic savvy, including the figure of the litotes in the passage quoted above.  Here, Jacobs deploys a sophisticated rhetorical repertoire, as effective (if not more savvy) than Douglass’ persuasive style. To contend that Jacobs is disinterested in literacy as a method for resistance is to dismiss her bravery, fearlessness, and genuine daring, both in her disabling responses to Dr. Flint and in the presentation of her experience to audiences who doubted women’s capacities to exercise public voice.

To contend that Jacobs is disinterested in literacy as a method for resistance is to dismiss her bravery, fearlessness, and genuine daring, both in her disabling responses to Dr. Flint and in the presentation of her experience to audiences who doubted women’s capacities to exercise public voice.

Television, music videos, and commercials represent the masculine objectification of women, often displaying the black female body as highly sexual. The same black female body was objectified in slavery: women with light skin, like Harriet Jacobs, were considered more desirable than those with darker skin tones. Partly because of this curious distinction, Jacobs could speak her mind, depending on her body to keep her safe from physical harm. But to be black, beautiful, and to have a strong voice confounds both racist and sexist ideas–even now.

 Bibliography

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Morgan, Winifred. “Gender-Related Differences in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.” American Studies. 35, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 73-94.

  1. I would like to acknowledge and thank my peer review group for helping me explore the dimensions of female beauty and empowerment related to the legacy of slavery. []
  2. Winifred Morgan, “Gender-Related Differences in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass,” American Studies, 35, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 76. []
  3. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of  a Slave Girl, ed. Nellie Y McKay and Frances Smith Foster,  (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000): 35. []
  4. Ibid., 40. []
  5. Morgan, 85. []
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