Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Published right on the eve of the Civil War, this book tells the story of Harriet Jacobs (well, coming into being first), the process of self-discovery, and her story moving toward freedom and the eventual freedom of her children as well. What stands out with this narrative is just how beautifully this memoir is, and how painfully she writes about loss.
Her writings about the sexual harassments, sexual exploitation, and sexual violence she experienced both in her adolescence is so stark and real, and, at least in writing, ahead of its time. Her kind of triple-consciousness, where she tries to make her audience understand how a Black woman, and one in slavery at that, trying to protect herself, protect her children, and survive (let alone thrive) has to make some compromises and decisions within safe discretion. It really spells out the impossibility of her position.
The sections later when she’s in freedom (and still terrified of the possibility of being caught and sent back) and working to free her children is so horrifying and awful to think about.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
|It’s been a long time since I’ve read this narrative, and is probably the fourth or so time since, what stands out to me about this re-read is a reminder of the political goals and publishing goals of this book. For one thing, I am reading this book again as part of helping out a colleague who is on maternity leave, so I wasn’t involved in the lesson-planning parts of the unit while she’s away, so I just read the book and joined the class. The students were comparing this book to Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, and so of course I reread that one too. Invariably students were asked about the “gendered” aspects of both books, and the general conclusion (and forgive them, they’re high school students) the conclusion was that Jacobs’s book had “gendered” aspects, and Douglass’s did not.
So we discussed some of the issues with those assumptions. Anyway, it reminded me, especially given the opening introduction by William Lloyd Garrison, the political/rhetorical purposes behind this text. Although it’s a truly masterful memoir in so many ways, it’s also clear that there’s a rhetorical thread throughout the book, and the very obviously noble one, but it’s a through-line. Even the subtitle “Written by himself” reminds us of the very public nature of this book.