The Importance of Family Values and Morals in Harriet Jacobs’ Story

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Harriet Jacobs penned an account of her life as an enslaved woman, recounting the hardships she endured, her confinement, and eventual emancipation. Her work, titled “Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl,” aimed to be recognized as a slave narrative, shedding light on the brutalities faced by slaves, particularly young women. This narrative also served as a political declaration, challenging the notion that Northern societal norms of segregation were significantly different from the oppressive nature of slavery. Jacobs’ story is not only a personal revelation but also a historical testament illustrating how she was taught core family principles and ethics in her youth and how she had to forsake them to preserve her self-respect and dignity while enduring legal and social enslavement.

The chapter titled “Still in Prison” utilizes visual descriptions to highlight the irony of Jacobs’ status as a prisoner in her grandmother’s attic. Although she is the one who is imprisoned, she reflects on how her owner is able to enjoy freedom in the open air. Meanwhile, she is confined in order to protect herself from the cruelties sanctioned by the laws that give him power. Jacobs’ actions in defending herself, her moral values, and her family against Flint’s attempts to rape her are viewed as criminal by Flint himself. After giving birth to her child, she characterizes Flint’s reaction using legal terms: “Then he proceeded to reprimand me for my alleged crimes against him and my lack of gratitude for his restraint. The rules were reiterated to me, and I was dismissed.” This demonstrates that Jacobs is partially focusing her story on the pre-Civil War legal system in an effort to encourage reform.

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She aims to achieve this by offering a portrayal that serves two objectives: to present herself as an ordinary individual engaged in common endeavors like family life and education, as a means to argue that the principles of slavery contradicted the moral basis of democracy and to expose the inequities within the legal system, particularly its bias toward White individuals and discrimination against Black individuals. Her final remarks establish a link between external laws and practices, and the internal moral and ethical responses.

Jacobs feels fortunate when it comes to her family life, as her nuclear family remained intact and they were able to function as a unit. However, it was not until her mother’s death that she became aware of her enslaved status. This realization occurred at the age of six, through conversations that took place within her surroundings.

Following her mother’s passing, the protagonist becomes integrated into the owner’s life and family. The owner’s wife assumes the role of a maternal figure, offering the care and nurturing that the protagonist’s own mother is no longer able to provide. The protagonist expresses gratitude for her mistress’s kindness, expressing contentment in fulfilling her mistress’s requests and taking pride in serving her to the best of her abilities. She depicts spending countless hours diligently sewing alongside her mistress, feeling as carefree as any white child. Ultimately, the protagonist develops a profound love and appreciation for her mistress, regarding her as a surrogate motherly presence in her life.

After her father’s death, she goes to live with her grandmother. Here, she encounters another “normal” life that emphasizes morality and piety. However, she strongly opposes her grandmother’s belief that slavery is justified as “God’s will.” She firmly states, “Let those who are willing to be slaves, be slaves.”

During her puberty, the reality of being a slave and lacking legal rights or protection becomes apparent in her life. Dr. Flint, her owner, relentlessly pursues sexual relations with her. She explains that by the age of 14, her life becomes an ongoing struggle. The hidden truths of slavery are revealed, much like those during the Inquisition. One truth is the unfortunate fate shared by slave girls who lack the power to resist sexual exploitation. Even a young child will soon understand why certain slaves are despised by their mistress as they are forced to confront immoral acts at a tender age. Gradually, she develops fear towards her master’s presence and realizes that she is no longer viewed as a child.

Within the social system that encompasses slavery and its laws, the legal violation of a slave girl through rape is either disregarded or denied. Despite having been instilled with religious principles by a devout mother or grandmother, or by receiving care from a compassionate mistress, she may also have the affections of a lover whose opinion she values greatly. However, her oppressors may be repugnant to her. Nevertheless, any resistance against this injustice is futile. Her only means of engaging in sexual relations under such circumstances is to take matters into her own hands, much like Jacobs did, by deliberately becoming pregnant. Ideally, she would seek out someone powerful enough to offer protection. Consequently, she is compelled to sacrifice her virtue.

The process of her life involves a dramatic representation of the conflicting feelings she has towards her physical needs, personal morals, and strong belief in family responsibilities. To maintain a sense of “safety” and stay close to her children, she chooses to hide in her Grandmother’s house. Throughout the extended period of seclusion, the young woman undergoes a mental collapse, which includes reverting back to a childlike state both emotionally and physically. It is possible that Jacobs is comparing her situation to a form of “rebirth,” where she yearns to be nurtured into a third stage of her life. Alternatively, the regression she experiences may simply be a historical element within the narrative of her life.

When she is eventually found, she is compelled to escape and start anew as a servant in the North. It is in this timeframe that she presents her case regarding the hypocrisy of the Northern society, which rejects the legal confines of slavery but still upholds social conventions that are almost equally oppressive and dehumanizing. In her new role, she manages to establish a sort of surrogate family with the child under her care. Her own children depart and she also gains exposure to the diverse cultural facets of England, experiencing life as a privileged servant rather than a slave.

In England, she experiences a new perspective on being a mother and wife, without being judged based on her appearance. With Baby Mary and Mr. Bruce by her side, she feels the legitimacy and respectability that comes with freedom and whiteness. Her family in the end includes a decent man who doesn’t expect anything sexual from her, the second Mrs. Bruce who becomes her friend, and a child who loves her unconditionally.

She experiences segregation in transportation and accommodations, facing racist work rules and environments. Despite being a part of this family, she is excluded from certain privileges due to prejudice. Nonetheless, she encounters the same cruel manifestations of discrimination that oppress colored individuals and dampen their aspirations.

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The Importance of Family Values and Morals in Harriet Jacobs’ Story. (2022, Dec 28). Retrieved from

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