Harriet Jacobs and her “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Frederick Douglass in his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” are two of the most significant works in a genre called fugitive slave narrative. They were written at a similar time; though Jacobs was hesitant to publish hers, Douglass wrote several versions of his story over several decades. Both of these former slaves managed to escape to the North and wanted to expose slavery for the evil thing it was. While they share that common theme in their writing, each of them has a unique perspective and voice which is reflected in their stories.
Douglass says this:
You have seen how a man was mad a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.
This reveals two important things about his narrative. First, it is told from a man’s perspective, and second, he is the hero of his own story. His slave experience certainly demonstrates emotional aspects of his life, but it primarily recounts physical battles and victories. As a field slave, he was abused and beaten until he decided to stand up against his master who eventually sent him to Covey, a man whose job it is to “break” slaves.
During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.
Douglass eventually stands up to him and refuses to be broken, and that is when his journey to freedom really begins.
Douglass’s voice is much more polished than Jacobs’s, as he was a prolific speaker about his own story before he ever wrote his narrative. He has been empowered by his experience.
Jacobs, on the other hand, writes this:
Slavery is terrible for a man, but it is far more terrible for women.
Her narrative, then, is written from a woman’s perspective, and she is not a particularly heroic figure. Her story is a confession:
I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.
In fact, she essentially moves from being a domestic slave in the South to being a domestic former slave in the North. While she certainly suffers physical abuse, her story is primarily an emotional one; because of the story she has to tell, her primary appeal is to women. She is ashamed of herself when writes about the compromises she had to make for the sake of her children and about her life as a sexual slave; however, she, like Douglass, takes a stand and refuses to let Doctor Flint to touch her. She, too, is empowered by this experience and is eventually able to leave.
Her voice is much more timid, even apologetic, than Douglass’s; in fact, it often reads like fiction because she “hides” true identities—including her own—in her story. She has been made fearful by her experience.
Jacobs and Douglass simply write the female and male versions of slavery. The accounts tell equally of depravity and ugliness though they are different views of the same rotten institution. Like most who managed to escape the shackles of slavery, these two authors share a common bond of tenacity and authenticity. Their voices are different—one is timid, quiet, and almost apologetic while the other one is loud, strong, and confident—but they are both authentic. Jacobs is still rather searching for her identity as a free woman and a mother; Douglass knows just who he is: “a slave who was made a man.” She wants women to speak out against the oppression of other women, and he wants all men to do something to stop slavery. Both voices need to be heard.