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July 05, 2010

Reading Update: Slave Narratives

My cousin, whose house I'm staying at in Mono Lake, has most of the Library of America in a bookcase in one of the bedrooms. I pulled out a volume of slave narratives -- partly out of interest and partly as research for da nobble -- and read the following:

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green by Jacob D. Green

I have some questions about the Harriet Jacobs narrative, which was essentially an American slave version of Clarissa. It was basically the story of a beautiful young slave girl whose master wanted her, but for some reason wouldn't force himself on her. He practiced every sort of deception and pressure, but didn't rape her. For years. In fact, at one point he let her leave his household and go live with her free grandmother, doing no work for him -- again for years. I don't find this plausible at all, especially given the almost casual and frequent incidence of rape -- particularly when a slave refused to give in to her master's demands -- in the other slave narratives. (Jacobs' master, by the way, wasn't averse to violence, which makes her story less plausible.)

The one thing that gives this narrative some support is how Frederick Douglass, in his narrative, mentions the difference between treatment of slaves in towns, where everyone knows when a slave is abused and masters can get a bad reputation, and treatment of slaves on plantations, where masters and overseers have an essentially free hand. Part of the reason Harriet Jacobs gives for her master's self-control where rape is concerned is the respect in which her free grandmother is held in the community of the town where they live, and the disapprobation her master would incur if he displeased the grandmother.

I still don't find it entirely plausible though. Jacobs' narrative was clearly written for women to read; to impress upon women readers the horrors of rape and "degradation" that slavery imposed upon women slaves. It seems as if Jacobs and/or her editors didn't quite dare to take the narrative's heroine down to the level of commonly raped slaves -- perhaps lest the narrator lose the reader's respect entirely. Or maybe they were jumping off of the Clarissa-type of narrative, writing slave women into a common narrative that would be recognized by lady novel-readers.

The narratives mostly tend to emphasize successful escape as the climax, and settlement in free territory as the denouement, of a proper slave narrative. Talk about the tyranny of narrative! Of course, this would be what interests former slave writers and mainstream readers alike; what a perfect, built-in narrative arc! There seems to be little treatment of what life is like, in detail, in the free north, although Harriet Jacobs does detail -- with great indignation and a language that seems ahead of its time -- some incidents of "color prejudice" she encounters as the sole "colored" nurse among white nurses at a resort. Too bad, because this contributes to the black-and-white notion we have of North and South, the north being this mythical land of freedom and justice where fugitive slaves met with kindness and equality, etc. etc. But I suppose that's the product of its own times and political agenda.

Aside from these reflections, I read these with an inquisitive mind, as research, to give me some background on some characters in da nobble, so I wasn't, for the most part, reading critically.


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