Literary Influences on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself
Sonia Sedano Vivanco
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is probably the most representative slave narrative written by a woman. Critics who have studied this work find it to be a very valuable text in the tradition of African American literature. For example, Hazel V. Carby considers it "the most sophisticated, sustained narrative dissection of the conventions of true womanhood by a black author before emancipation" (65), and Joanne M. Braxton thinks it is "exemplary of the autobiographical writing of slave women even as it might be seen as atypical of the narration of male slaves" (19). However important these remarks are, it is Jean Fagan Yellin who sees Incidents's full import in American (and especially in black American) letters:

Incidents is, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that takes as its subject the sexual exploitation of female slaves - thus centering on sexual oppression as well as on oppression of race and conditions; it is, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that identifies its audience as female; it is, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative written in the style of sentimental fiction; and my work suggests that it may be the first full-length slave narrative by a woman to be published in this country (263).

Given its originality, and taking into account the great influence of Incidents on future black women's writings, it is necessary to analyze the way in which Harriet Jacobs wrote this book. I will analyze the literary genres by which the book could have been influenced, paying special attention to the sentimental novel, the picaresque novel and the trickster tale. However, the fact that it was a female and not a male slave who wrote this piece of writing is crucial since slave narratives written by women have different thematic and stylistic characteristics than slave narratives written by men. The narrators of female slave narratives introduced thematic issues of what it meant to be a slave daughter, girl, woman, and mother, whereas male authors were more interested in the political side of the institution of slavery and its consequences for the slave population. As far as style is concerned, female narrators are more concerned with the creation of a sensational and melodramatic ambience than male narrators, whose style is more sober. Another difference between male and female narrators of slave narratives is that male narrators represent slave women as victims (especially victims of sexual abuse), whereas female narrators, like Harriet Jacobs, present stronger slave women. She is a woman who refuses to become a sexual victim and struggles to win freedom for herself and her children.[1]

Like most male slave narratives, Jacobs's work is an autobiography, that is, a first-person narrative in which the protagonist, the author and the narrator are the same person. However, Jacobs's autobiography is more than an autobiography in that it resembles confessional narratives. Before moving on to the main topic of this essay - the relationship of the sentimental novel, the picaresque and African folktales to Incidents - I would like to comment briefly on the features that relate Jacobs's work to confessional narrative. I want to do this because this genre also influenced the way Incidents was written - though not as much as the above-mentioned genres - and because it has something in common with the other genres, as I will explain later.

According to Yellin, Incidents' "confessional aspects - the account of sexual error, guilt, rejection and at least partial acceptance - are. . . unique" (271). They are unique because these elements do not appear in other slave narratives, mainly because most of them were written by men. Jacobs's Incidents thus offers a new perspective in this type of narrative. For Braxton, the use of the confessional mode serves Jacobs as "a kind of expiation" of her sexual sin (33). She argues that through her "confessional narrative, she begins to expiate her guilt and to find a physical and spiritual community where her humanity and sensitivity will be valued and where she can rise above her painful past" (25). This process is a reminder of the stages of spiritual autobiography: sin, repentance, spiritual backsliding, and rebirth. In this sense, Jacobs's Incidents resemble male slave narratives. Melvin Dixon explains the use of the spiritual autobiography as a model by slave authors:

When slaves came to write their formal autobiographies they emphasized a conversion-like model of personal experience and testimony to construct their own "witness" to the horrors of slavery and the regenerative joy of freedom. The conversion experience helped to organize the individual life and unite it with time and the eternal presence of God (303).

The process from sin to rebirth in spiritual autobiographies is paralleled by the process from slavery to freedom in slave narratives. Slaves experience a change from chattel, enduring suffering, to man or woman living in the Promised Land, the North.

Jacobs's Incidents is special in this sense. Jacobs's sin is not only to be a slave, as was the case with other - usually male - authors. Her sin is also to have had sexual intercourse and borne two children of a man to whom she was not lawfully married. People at the time could easily accept that male slave owners had sex with or raped female slaves. White men could seemingly do whatever they wanted, unlike white women who had to be pure and chaste. Thus, it was surprising that female slaves chose who they had sexual intercourse with. Female slaves were, in this sense, considered women, not female slaves, and as such, they had to follow the moral code that was applied to white women, to remain pure and chaste and find a man to marry and have children. As Jacobs has sex without being married and the man she has sex with is not her owner, she is a sinner. She must then undergo an expiation process through which she spends seven years in a hiding-place. Here, she has time to think about her sin and repent. Once she has done so and the circumstances are favorable, she manages to escape; her children eventually follow her. She becomes free after a painful process. Freedom from earthly slavery is the culminating point of slave narratives as freedom from sin is the climax in spiritual autobiographies. At the end of her narrative, Jacobs obtains legal freedom when she is bought and emancipated by her new owner. This is both freedom from slavery and freedom from her sin, that is, her sexual error.

One of the most important literary influences on Jacobs’s narrative, and the genre that had the strongest influence on her work, is that of the sentimental novel. The first element that Incidents and the sentimental novel have in common is the setting; both Incidents and the sentimental novel use a domestic setting. Houston A. Baker describes this domestic background in Jacobs’s narrative in the following terms: “A world of mistresses and slaves-in-waiting emerges from the first chapters . . . as an essentially domestic arena in which the female slave will confront her destiny” (50). This domestic setting, however, is different from its symbolism in the sentimental novel. The domesticity of Incidents is not representative of an easy life, but full of instances of cruelty and abuse. The action developed in the sentimental novel is slow and non-violent, and therefore unsuitable for a slave narrative like Incidents. Thus, even though in both types of narrative the domestic setting plays an important role, the way and tone in which the narratives develop from that starting point is different.

On the other hand, Jacobs uses the techniques and conventions of the sentimental novel in several ways. Valerie Smith argues that she uses the sentimental novel to express her sexual vulnerability because the slave narrative could not adequately represent this situation. In the sentimental novel, the heroine aspired to chastity and hoped for marriage and family, whereas Jacobs was in a situation in which neither chastity nor family or marriage could be achieved because she was a slave (Smith, 1988, xxxi). Being a female slave meant being subject to sexual abuse. In fact, the oppression undergone by female slaves in general is expressed in several chapters of Incidents , as Braxton points out: “Five chapters of the autobiography deal explicitly with the sexual oppression encountered by slave women: ‘The Trials of Girlhood,’ ‘The Jealous Mistress,’ ‘The Lover,’ ‘A Perilous Passage in a Slave Girl’s Life,’ and ‘A New Tie to Life’” (29). The abuses female slaves suffered were manifold and in these chapters Jacobs presents them in a powerful way. She introduces herself as a victim so that her readers can identify her as such, and feel sympathy for her. She is the victim of Mr. Flint (her master, who wants to abuse her sexually), of Mr. Sands (her lover, who promises her freedom but cannot keep his promise), and of slavery.[2] Thus, Jacobs places herself in a weak position in society so that her intended audience—“the women of the North” (6)—could sympathize with her situation, if not as a slave, at least as a woman, weak and vulnerable like the heroines of sentimental novels. Jacobs is a black woman who writes a book addressed to white women in the North. As Smith observes:

Jacobs's class affiliation, and the fact that she was subjected to relatively minor forms of abuse as a slave, enable her to locate a point of identification both with her readers and with the protagonists of sentimental fiction. Like them, she aspires to chastity and piety as consummate feminine virtues, and hopes that marriage and family would be her earthly reward (219).

Jacobs's problem is that she is not the owner of her life and her choices are, therefore, limited. She chooses to be a chaste and a respectful woman, but she is forced to take another course in her life. Unlike the heroines of sentimental fiction, she is not free.

Despite the limitations, Jacobs is able to adapt the plot of the sentimental novel in Incidents . Smith explores the relationship between Incidents and the plots of other sentimental novels, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela by suggesting that:

Jacobs invokes a plot initiated by Richardson's Pamela and recapitulated in nineteenth-century American sentimental novels. In this plot, a persistent male of elevated social rank seeks to seduce a woman of a lower class. Through her resistance and piety, however, she educates her would-be seducer into an awareness of his own depravity and his capacity for true honorable love. In the manner of Pamela's Mr. B., the reformed villain rewards the heroine's virtue by marrying her (222-223).

There are clear similarities between Richardson's plot and the plot of Incidents , but also clear differences. First, in Incidents the "persistent male of elevated social rank" is Mr. Flint, and the "woman of a lower class" he tries to seduce is Jacobs. The difference here is that not only is Jacobs of a lower class, but that she is also Mr. Flint's property. Secondly, she resists to being seduced like the heroines of sentimental novels but, unlike them, she does not manage to educate her seducer into being an honorable man. Instead, she finds a means of rebellion: she takes a lover and bears him two children. Moreover, the villain does not become a reformed man, but persists in making Jacobs's life as hard as he can. The final, and probably the most important difference, is that the heroine - Jacobs - does not get married at the end of the book. The happy ending everyone would expect in sentimental novels is not present in Incidents . As Carby explains, "Incidents does not conform to the conventional happy ending to the sentimental novel" (66). Jacobs realizes that this divergence from her generic model is important, and asserts: "Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (302). Thus, Jacobs proves to be conscious of the conventions of the sentimental novel and uses and manipulates them to narrate her experience as something unique.

The sentimental novel provided Jacobs not only with a setting, a plot, and a series of topics. It also provided her with a set of formal and rhetorical characteristics. Two of these characteristics are the florid asides and the melodrama that envelop the narration. Both features are frequent in Incidents . Jacobs’s discourse is constructed through exclamations, rhetorical questions, addresses to the reader, and subjective adjectives, which create a melodramatic tone. The following extract is a good example of Jacobs’s use of melodrama:

What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post? of hounds trained to tear human flesh? of men screwed into cotton gins to die? (114)

However, no matter how melodramatic Jacobs's narration may be, the action and events recalled in it are real and true. This separates Incidents from the sentimental novel, a genre of fictional events and fictional characters. This fact proves the inadequacy of the sentimental form for the writing of a slave narrative like Jacobs's: "[W]hen Jacobs asserts that her narrative is not fiction, that her adventures may seem incredible but they are nevertheless true, and that only experience can reveal the abomination of slavery, she underscores the inability of this form to adequately capture her experiences" (Smith 222). However, this is the form her audience is used to reading. Thus, by making this audience aware that all the sensational aspects and episodes in Incidents are true, Jacobs could incite them to act in favor of the abolition of slavery, for slavery is at the root of Jacobs's problems.

Apart from the fact that this is not a fictional work, there are other reasons why Jacobs's Incidents cannot be considered a real sentimental novel. The most important one is perhaps, that Jacobs narrates her loss of virginity, something that would have been unthinkable in sentimental novels. Jacobs introduces her loss of virtue in the context of her struggle to escape from Mr. Flint's sexual harassment. According to Manuela Matas Llorente, she is an innocent woman since she did not want that relationship, and cannot therefore be accused of experiencing illicit desires (32). Jacobs proves that it was slavery itself that forced her to act in that way, and that slavery is therefore responsible for her loss of innocence. She was forced to lose her virginity in order to survive in a society where slavery was legal. Nevertheless, Jacobs knows that she has done something against the morality of the virtuous women of the North to whom the book is addressed, and states:

Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. I know I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day. Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standards as others. 86

After apologizing for what she has done, she argues that the whole system of slavery is to blame, that slavery forces her and other slaves to act against their good principles and virtues. In fact, Jacobs had stated previously: "the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible" (85). Jacobs, in this way, admits that there are two moralities: those of the slaves and those of free people. As Carby points out: "Jacobs's narrative was unique in its subversion of a major narrative code of sentimental fiction: death, as preferable to loss of purity, was replaced by 'Death is better than slavery'" (75). This idea that "Death is better than slavery" (96) is frequently found in slave narratives,[3] but not in the context of female oppression.[4] The moral value of purity found in the sentimental novel is replaced by the physical value of freedom. Freedom is more important for a slave than purity, and this is why Jacobs says: "the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standards as others" (86). Jacobs has tried to reconcile the above-mentioned types of morality but finally admits her failure.

Another moment in which Incidents abandons the discourse of the sentimental novel is with Jacobs's second pregnancy. Her loss of virginity and first pregnancy had been a means of resistance to Mr. Flint, but she says nothing about her second pregnancy. In fact, she does not talk about her relationship with Mr. Sands in the two chapters that follow the birth of her son, and when she does, she simply tells Mr. Flint that she is pregnant again: "When Dr. Flint learned that I was again to be a mother, he was exasperated beyond measure" (118). This suggests, once again, that the sentimental novel was not an appropriate literary model for Jacobs's narrative. Jacobs deviates from her major generic influence, maybe not so much in her narrative, as in her own life. However, as she stated before, she should not be judged by the same standards as (white) free women.

Nevertheless, no matter how relevant the differences between the sentimental novel and Incidents are, they do not obviate the similarities between them, and thus, Jacobs’s reasons for using this genre as a literary model must be assessed. As previously stated, Jacobs’s plot resembles the plots of the sentimental novel in order that the women of the North could sympathize with her situation. Moreover, Jacobs wanted them to feel compassion for her as a slave mother. Compassion was something the authors of sentimental novels wanted to arouse in their readers and, in order to do so, they introduced instances of suffering. However, Jacobs does not include many instances of physical cruelty toward slaves, as other slave authors do in their works. Her suffering is linked to her condition as a slave woman and mother who can be forcibly separated from her children at any time. And finally, it must be remembered that Jacobs herself states the purpose of her narrative in her “Introduction”: “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two million of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse” (6). If Jacobs managed to arouse sympathy and compassion in the women of the North and make them aware of the real situation of slave women, they then would be morally obliged to do something for the abolitionist cause.

Another literary genre that has been associated with slave narratives is that of the picaresque novel. This genre was inaugurated with the publication of the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes in Spain, 1554. Although the picaresque is a fictional genre, it has some features that can be applied to the narratives of former slaves. The picaresque novel is defined as “the episodic narrative describing the progress of the pícaro” (Ousby 777). The term pícaro has been translated into English as rogue or knave, but the term pícaro has connotations that are not included in those English words. A pícaro is a character from a low social status who has to survive in a hostile society. The slave fits in this definition since she/he is definitely in a hostile society that denies his or her humanity and turns him or her into mere property. The pícaro is also defined as “the product of poverty and of a social value system which prohibits him from being anything else” (Sieber 23). The slave is not really the product of poverty —she/he does not choose to become a slave because she/he has no other means to survive— but the slave lives, like the pícaro, in a social system which does not allow him or her to be anything else. Finally, according to Frederick Monteser, the pícaro is often ignorant of her/his own parents (3). In the same way, most slaves born in America do not know who their parents are. Many slave authors assert this at the beginning of their narratives.[5]

Though the pícaro has a few similarities with the male slave, the female pícaro, that is, the pícara, has special features that separate her from the female slave. Unlike her male counterpart who was a rogue, a knave, a poor young man who survived in sixteenth-century Spain by means of trickery, the Spanish pícara was a prostitute who rejoiced in her sexual encounters. Both the pícaro and the pícara tried to survive in sixteenth-century Spanish society. However, the difference between them is the means they used to survive: the pícaro deceived and stole, and the pícara used her sex. She chose to do so, though she might have found other means to survive. The female slave, however, had no choice: if she did not submit to her master’s will, she would either be punished, killed or, even worse, her children and husband could be taken away from her. Jacobs, however, managed not to submit to her master’s will and survive. She describes her master’s desire for her and how he addressed her - “My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. . . . He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of” (44) - how he harassed her, and how she struggled and finally managed to remain pure. She fell in love with a free black man and decided to give herself to the man she loved rather than to her master. The fact that she got pregnant made Mr. Flint furious, since he realized that she had defeated him. She had chosen the man for her. Even though she bore two children of a man she was not legally married to, she does not express any pleasure in sex, like a pícara would. Unlike the pícara, Jacobs does not prostitute herself: in the first place, she submits to the man she loves, not to any man; secondly, she does not get an immediate reward for having had sex with a man.

One of the features of the picaresque novel that has been studied in relationship with slave narratives is the pcaro's use of strategies, tactics and tricks to survive -and especially to steal food. These situations are narrated in a comic tone in both the picaresque and slave narratives. For example, Henry Bibb, an ex-slave, justifies slaves stealing food in his Narrative in the following terms: "The master exclaims angrily: 'You scoundrel, you ate my turkey.' The slave replies, 'yes, sir, Massa, you got less turkey but you sho' got mo' nigger'" (122). Jacobs also used picaresque means or tricks to defeat Mr. Flint,[6] even though she cannot be completely a pcara. Jacobs uses tricks to survive, but these tricks are more closely related to African folktales than to Spanish picaresque novels.

African folktales were brought to the New World by slaves and were adapted by African Americans in order that they could express their situation as slaves and help them survive in a hostile environment. In these tales, the character (person or animal) that is at a disadvantage defeats the powerful one using his or her wit, deception, double-meaning, irony and other (more or less comical) means, thus becoming a trickster figure. Slaves used double-meaning in order not to be understood by their overseers and masters. Instances of double-meaning or double-talk can be found in slave songs and in the language of slaves that was based on "signifying." Henry Louis Gates, Jr. defines signifying as "the figure of the double-voiced" (xxv). This word comes from the Signifying Monkey - the main character of the Signifying Monkey tales. Signifying involves a playful and conscious use of language in which words undergo a change of meaning. It was used by slaves to show their ability and wit using the English language, and to feel they had some power over their white superiors, the power of understanding the slaves' linguistic code, incomprehensible to whites.[7]

Jacobs proves to be a trickster figure who uses language and wit to defeat Mr. Flint. Braxton argues that she uses "sass" - "talking impudently or disrespectfully to an elder or a superior," or "talking back"[8] - "as a shield against Flint's physical sexual aggression" (31). For instance, Jacobs dares to answer her master back on many occasions. She outwits him, like in the following extract:

“Well, I’ll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly. If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my slaves.”
What a situation I should be in, as the wife of one of his slaves, even if my heart had been interested!
I replied, “Don’t you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about marrying? Do you suppose that all men are alike to her?”
“Do you love this nigger?” said he, abruptly.
“Yes, sir.”
“How dare you tell me so!” he exclaimed, in great wrath. After a slight pause, he added, “I supposed you thought more of yourself; that you felt above the insults of such puppies.”
I replied, “If he is a puppy I am a puppy, for we are both of the negro race. It is right and honorable for us to love each other. The man you call a puppy never insulted me, sir; and he would not love me if he did not believe me to be a virtuous woman.”
He sprang upon me like a tiger, and gave me a stunning blow. It was the first time he had ever struck me; and fear did not enable me to control my anger. When I had recovered a little from the effects, I exclaimed, “You have struck me for answering you honestly. How I despise you!” (61)

Even though he has hit her, she still answers him back. Words are her weapon against his physical strength. The conversation continues and she finds more strength in her words:

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.”
“Silence!” he exclaimed, in a thundering voice. “By heavens, girl, you forget yourself too far! Are you mad? If you are, I will soon bring you to your senses. Do you think any other master would bear what I have borne from you this morning? Many masters would have killed you on the spot. How would you like to be sent to jail for your insolence?”
“I know I have been disrespectful, sir,” I replied; “but you drove me to it; I couldn’t help it. As for the jail, there would be more peace for me there than there is here.” (62)

Jacobs is more powerful than him in language use, but he has the power to strike her and abuse her whenever he wants to because the law protects him. Jacobs's final act of rebellion is another trick: her escape.

Jacobs's Incidents cleverly combines the conventions of very different literary styles: confessional literature, the sentimental novel, African folktales and the trickster figure, the picaresque novel and, obviously, the (male) slave narrative. There is an element that links these literary genres together: sex. If we considered Incidents a sort of confessional autobiography, sex would be the starting point in the sin-to-rebirth progress: her illicit sexual intercourse with a man she was not married to would be her sin, which she would have to purge to achieve spiritual - and physical - freedom. She purges her sin by spending seven years in a hiding-place in which she could hardly move and in which she felt very lonely, as she could not risk seeing many people.

Jacobs's confession that she had a sexual relationship with a man outside marriage would be outrageous in the context of the sentimental novel, especially if we take into account the fact that the readers of the sentimental novel were mostly women who had a very strong - and strict - sense of morality. However, Jacobs knows this and justifies herself stating that, for the female slave, white standards of morality are almost unattainable since the slave is in a submissive position and has to do what she is ordered to or bear the consequences.

Sex is also an important element in picaresque novels. As I stated above, the pcara used her sexuality to survive in sixteenth-century Spain. Jacobs uses her sexuality to defeat Mr. Flint, to make him understand that it is she who makes decisions about her own sexual life, and as a way - or that is what she hoped - to achieve freedom. Thus, it could be argued that Jacobs is a trickster in two different ways, having two means to defeat Mr. Flint: her sexuality and her wits. First, she uses sex to outwit him - she does not give herself to him, but to the man she chooses for herself. Second, she uses language to defeat Mr. Flint verbally. As in trickster tales, in which the weak figure uses his or her best qualities as weapons to defeat his or her rival, Jacobs uses the only things she can own physically, her sexuality and her brain, to defeat the strong character in her story: Mr. Flint.

Finally, it must be stated that sex is also present in male slave narratives, but mainly as a means to express the special sort of suffering slave women had to bear, and to present them as victims in a more or less sensational and melodramatic way. However, Jacobs does not present herself as a victim - she only does so at the beginning of Mr. Flint's sexual harassment to arouse sympathy in the white women of the North - but as a strong and determined woman who wants her own and her children's freedom and who would do whatever she has to do to achieve this goal. Here lies part of the originality of this work, in the portrayal of a slave woman by herself and from her own point of view. But the originality of Incidents lies also in the combination of very different genres with the element of sex in common. Her sexual relationship is the sin she has to purge in the context of confessional literature; it is also what separates this work from the sentimental novel; and finally, it is the trick Jacobs - as a trickster figure - uses to defeat her master. This originality of Incidents would have had at least two consequences: first, an identification between Jacobs and her readers - who would thus fight for the abolition of slavery - and second, a narrative model for future African American women authors.


Notes

1 For further information on the differences between male and female slave authors, see Frances Smith Foster's "'In Respect to Females': Differences in the Portrayals of Women by Male and Female Narrators." back

2 However, as the story develops she is no longer a victim but a strong woman who controls her life, makes decisions and acts to achieve what she desires: freedom for herself and for her children. She resists Mr. Flint’s sexual proposals and his power over her life. back

3 I will give two examples taken from two different male slave narratives. Olaudah Equiano narrates how three of his countrymen jumped into the sea from the slave ship which was taking them to Barbados: "[T]wo of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully, for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery" (59). Frederick Douglass also expresses this preference: "I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed" (43). back

4 Male slave authors wrote in their narratives that female slaves were not only physically but also sexually abused. However, they did not mention that slave women preferred death rather than being sexually harassed and assaulted. It was when female slave authors, such as Jacobs, expressed that feeling in their narratives that the phrase "death is better than slavery" acquired a new dimension. back

5 For example, the ex-slave Henry Bibb states: "It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage" (14). Bibb refers here to the fact that many slaves born in America often knew who their mothers were but were not told about their fathers, especially if they happened to be their own white masters. back

6 For instance, she writes letters from the garret in which she is hiding, and gets a friend to send them from New York; Mr. Flints goes there to fetch her but obviously does not find her. back

7 These tales were originated in slavery. In them, the weak character, which represents the slave, uses signifying to outwit the (supposedly) powerful character, which represents the slaveholder. For further information on signifying and the Signifying Monkey tales, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey. back

8 Braxton takes the definition from Webster's Dictionary. back


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---. "'Loopholes of Retreat': Architecture and Ideology in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990.

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