Slave Narratives are non-fictional account of the lives of the African American people who worked at the plantations where they were kept in inhuman conditions. They are biographical or autobiographical, the former being a result of a lack of education and consequently, no knowledge or practice of writing. They are also the main form of African American literature of the 19th century. They documented the inhuman practices that the slaves had to go through with no relief or rescue coming from the political and judicial systems of the country. In addition to exposing the horrors of the practice of slavery and making the white population empathise with the slaves, they also served a very important pollical function, which is mobilising people and particularly leaders of political importance in speaking against slavery. As Andrews put it, “slave narratives were an important means of opening a dialogue between blacks and whites about slavery and freedom.” (Andrews) In the preface to the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, talks about how Douglass gave a speech which moved the people there.
In this paper, a comparative study of the non-fictional Slave Narratives of Frederick Douglass which was first published in 1845 and Harriet Ann Jacobs published in 1861 is presented, focusing on the differences primarily arising by the virtue of gender. Douglass’ narrative, for the longest time has been the benchmark for slave narratives. Jacobs’ narrative is taken as the standard for female slave narratives, which may be because it is the first of its kind. However, despite this, it is often neglected and most of the focus falls of the narrative of Frederick Douglass. Therefore, it becomes important to examine the differences between the two narratives as one narrative can not be inclusive of the entire African American slave population.
There are obvious marked differences between the two narratives by virtue of gender. They include issues like sexual oppression through methods like rape, motherhood etc. (Bos, ) However, there are many similarities as well. Despite the fifteen years of difference between the publication of the two narratives, both strive to achieve their freedom. Both abhor the practice of slavery from their formative years although seeds of this have been planted in different ways. A lot of psychological struggle and trauma is shared by both the individuals despite being placed in different place and time. This further highlights the demon slavery is and how it does not provide recluse or relief to anyone it touches.
One very profound difference between the two narratives is how they have presented the community around them. While Douglass’ narrative appears to be very singular, Jacobs’ narrative is filled with people around her. People like her children, her grandma, her parents, her master, mistresses and their children as well as her friends and cousins not only find repeated mentions in the narrative, but most of her narrative seems to revolve around her children and the ordeals she underwent to ensure that they would be free. However, this is not to say that that Douglass only talks about himself in his narrative. He mentions his wife, his aunt, his masters and mistresses, his fellow slaves with whom he had formed a bond and briefly his parents. Douglass never knew his father’s identity and he talks about his mother without any sort of affection for her. When describing her death, he says, “Never having enjoyed… her soothing presence… I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.” (Douglass, 3) He briefly mentions having a ‘wife’ but it is only towards the end of the narrative that we actually find out her name and he mentions his marriage to her. When he has to leave his first plantation, he barely feels any distress as the ties that were supposed to bind him to that place were all suspended. (Douglass, 24) The only time he sees emotionally connected to anyone is when he talking about his year of servitude with Mr. Freeland. He says that that year was comparatively easy for him and for that he is “indebted to the society of fellow slaves.” (Douglass, 71) He also mentions how he wanted to take them along when he planned to run away and his “greatest concern was about separation.” (Douglass, 78) However this is not to say that Douglass is insensitive to the idea of collective. He talks about how often one brother whips another just because one is born of a black woman and the other is born of a white woman. He also talks of the songs the slaves used to sing together while working or walking from one place to next.
In contrast to Douglass’ narrative where there are only a few isolated incidents where Douglass talks about his community, Linda’s narrative revolves entirely around herself and her community. Her grandmother remains a central figure throughout the entire narrative and aids her during perilous times. She becomes a protective force and a confidante for her. Her family becomes an even more central force in the narrative after she bears children. Motherhood becomes as empowering a force for her as confining. She says:
I could have made my escape alone; but it was more for my helpless children than for myself that longed for freedom. Though the boon would have been precious to me, above all price, I would not have taken it at the expense of leaving them in slavery. Every trial I endured, every sacrifice I made for their sakes, drew them closer to my heart, and gave me fresh courage to beat back the dark waves that rolled and rolled over me in a seemingly endless night of storms. (Jacobs, 136-137)
It is only when the threat of falling in to Dr.Flint’s hands is made to her children that she actually puts her plan in action, escapes and goes into hiding. This inevitably leads more hardships for her all of which she endures for their sake. Linda also says that in order to free her children, she must own herself first. (Jacobs, 253) This shows how determined and empowered her children made her. When her Aunt Nancy dies, she not only grieves her demise, but also the pain of her grandmother. Her idea of community not only extends to the black population of America but also to the few ‘good’ white people she encounters there. She also develops and attachment to Mrs. Bruce and her baby at whose house she worked as a caretaker. She talks of ‘womanly sympathy’ (271) in the second Mrs. Bruce when she sympathises with her condition. She talks of true friendship as a sacred bond and holds all those who aided her from time to time in great respect. In spite of this, she does not hide the ugliness that can take shape in the hearts and minds of people. She constantly talks about her distrust of the white people and also relates the incident where a maid told on her and she had to run away from her hiding place.
It has already been presented how different Douglass’ narrative is from Jacobs’ narrative when it comes to their immediate community. As a result of this, there is a stark difference in the way women have been presented in both of these narratives. While both mention how a slave was supposed to follow the condition of their mother, in Douglass, women remain almost a distant group. He rarely talks about them except to express the kind of punishments handed out to them. He talks of his aunt and briefly talks of the female slave Mr.Covey had purchased to “breed” her. Towards the end of the narrative, he talks about his wife but that too, just briefly and about his marriage.
Jacobs’ narrative is populated with women and their stories. She expresses the fact that slavery is “more terrible for women”(Jacobs, 119) than it is for men. She also says that she “feels that the woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.” (Jacobs, 86) At this moment, she is talking about how she is ashamed is certain decisions that she has had to make like having sexual relations with Mr.Sands in order to escape sexual exploitation from Mr. Flint. This is a vicious alternative. She just replaces one oppressive figure with another in face of no alternative. This brings out the idea of honour associated with female body, an idea which has not been explored and done justice to in Douglass’ narrative. She states that “women are considered of no value unless they continually increase their owner’s stock.” (76) She has mentioned many friends of both races and talks of “womanly sympathy” as has already been mentioned. She has not only received this sympathy but given it too when she understands the mistress’s behaviour which grows out of insecurity and the failure to develop a common womanhood. This is not to say that she forgives her, but that she understands that she too, is a product of her circumstances. It is through this representation of women that it becomes the political voice of women.
Next, one must examine the attitude of both of these narratives towards religion. Douglass talks about religion in his narrative but it does not play a central role in his life. He talks about religion, but not in great detail. He talks about how the slaveholders often used religious scriptures to justify the punishments delivered to the slaves. He says:
I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes… —and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. … I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. … religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. (67)
He also relates an incident where a slaveholder whipped a slave with the utmost brutality and “in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture— “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” (Douglass, 48) Douglass also clarifies that this is not to disrespect Christianity as a religion. He says in the Appendix that whatever he has said applies to the “slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper” (101) This can be seen as coming from the political motive behind the narrative which will be addressed shortly.
Jacobs is religious but she too talks about the subversion of religion. She clearly separates the two religions by saying: There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south. If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church… he is called religious. If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismiss him, if she is a white woman; but if she is coloured, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd. (115)
Her personal religious beliefs and practices are present throughout the narrative but perhaps one can see its prominence the most in the chapter titled The Confession. When she is telling her daughter about her sexual history, she is ashamed of it almost as if it were a sin. In naming the chapter The Confession, she makes the act of telling her daughter the truth a very religious act, the daughter almost acting like the God she is asking for forgiveness.