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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Compare Frederick Douglass's and Harriet Jacobs's lives as slaves.  

While there are many similarities between the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, some of the key differences between the two writers' stories hinge upon their respective genders. Early on in Douglass' narrative, he describes witnessing the whipping of Aunt Hester and connecting her brutal punishment at the hands of her master to her physical attractiveness and the role sexuality and rape play in the lives of female slaves. In a way, Harriet Jacobs' story takes up a perspective similar to Aunt Hester's. Jacobs' life is less directly brutal than Douglass', but she is subject to a kind of sexualized terrorism and abuse on the part of her master.

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While there are many similarities between the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, some of the key differences between the two writers' stories hinge upon their respective genders. Early on in Douglass' narrative, he describes witnessing the whipping of Aunt Hester and connecting her brutal punishment at the hands of her master to her physical attractiveness and the role sexuality and rape play in the lives of female slaves. In a way, Harriet Jacobs' story takes up a perspective similar to Aunt Hester's. Jacobs' life is less directly brutal than Douglass', but she is subject to a kind of sexualized terrorism and abuse on the part of her master.

The gender difference also plays out in an interesting way in terms of the type of persona each writer presents and the sets of values through which they appeal to readers. For instance, Douglass' story is characteristically American in the degree to which it is story of Emersonian "Self-Reliance"—Douglass uses cunning and guile to educate himself despite his master's intentions to keep him from education. He also triumphs physically, in an epic fight with Covey, the "slave breaker." While there is some discussion of a sense of community and helping others, Douglass narrative is by and large the story of rugged individualism. By contrast, Jacobs' relationship to bondage and freedom is fundamentally tied to her status as a mother. When she escapes, she hides in an excruciatingly small space in order to retain proximity to her children. Her triumph is much more concerned with those who depend on her than her own independence.

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Many slave narratives, like those by Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) and Frederick Douglass, include similar sentiments and portray similar hardships. For example, both narratives show abuse at the hands of slaveholders, the risks of trying to escape, and the power slaveholders had to regain slaves who did run away. The significant difference between the two narratives is the writers' genders.

As a woman, Jacobs undergoes certain forms of abuse that Douglass does not. It is well known now that female slaves were regularly sexually assaulted by masters, and that they often had to bear slaveholder's children. Sometimes these children were kept at the plantation and sometimes they were sold off, which means the mother must endure another brutality in being separating from her own child. Jacobs depicts the advances of her owner and maintains how much she resisted. She shows the wife's anger and resentment toward her (Jacobs) as a result of her husband's bad behavior. Jacobs is also presenting her work to a different audience: one of Victorian-era Christian women. Therefore, she emphasizes her common Christianity with her readers and focuses on how she tries to retain her virtue in an immoral system. She also has children who she risks everything to protect. Jacobs is able to form a strong bond with her readers based on their common motherhood.

Douglass and Jacobs both eventually escape, and Douglass's narrative has, perhaps, a larger focus on literacy and education (the power that they can give an enslaved person). However, the fact that Jacobs is a female slave means that she must endure different kinds of abuse and threats beyond what Douglass experiences as a man.

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One of the greatest contrasts between the respective lives of Douglass and Jacobs as slaves revolves around the way slaves were treated according to gender. As an urban slave and a male, Douglass had to endure the hardships of physical abuse. He received abuse from a slave breaker, whom Douglass asserts that, for a time, broke him and took away all of his intellectual aspirations. Jacobs lived on a rural farm and was able to stay with her family, although she still endured atrocities such as unwanted sexual advances.

Unlike Jacobs, Douglass had an unquenchable thirst for literary prowess and knowledge. He would even go as far as to bribe local boys in an attempt to learn his letters. Both Jacobs and Douglass would go on to write compelling narratives and dedicate their lives to abolition.

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Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, had a much more humane early childhood than did Frederick Douglass. While Douglass was separated early from his mother, Jacobs lived with her parents and brother in North Carolina, where they were treated fairly kindly. Douglass, on the other hand, witnessed the horrors of slavery quite early, including the brutal whipping of his aunt at the hands of the overseer. In fact, Jacobs learned to read from her slave mistress, while Douglass's slave mistress in Baltimore at first taught him to read but then was roundly chastised for doing so and stopped. The other difference between their early life is that Jacobs was part of rural slavery, while Douglass, in his time in Baltimore, was an urban slave who eventually learned to work on ships.

Jacobs, who addressed her narrative to northern women, also endured several incidents that showed the effects of slavery on a woman. Her master made several unwanted sexual advances towards her, and she became involved with a white man as a form of protection. They had two children who were also slaves, and the white man did not free them. Douglass, on the other hand, was not married while a slave. Jacobs wound up escaping and hiding for seven years in her grandmother's attic, where she became physically weak, while Douglass's escape was unsuccessful until he reached the north. They both escaped north, where they became abolitionist speakers and wrote acclaimed slave narratives. 

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Frederick Douglass, in his "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," recalls early memories of seeing slaves receive terrible beatings and horrific overseers who were cruel. Harriet Jacobs, in her "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" recalls a happy childhood, in which she was taught to sew and read, and was unaware that she could be bought or sold. It wasn't until Harriet was older that she was abused and treated badly. Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, had to sneak his reading and writing and does hard labor for slave owners who are very cruel his whole life, only briefly working under a kind family. When Douglass escapes, he goes North. Initially, Harriet Jacobs hides in a crawl-space at her grandmother's house for seven years before escaping to Philadelphia. Both Douglass and Jacobs end up working together in the abolitionist movement.

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