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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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What examples of kindness from white Southerners are in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

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There are several examples of acts of kindness from white southerners that Harriet Jacobs describes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She also discusses how their perception of her as property rather than a person and the overall system of inequality often polluted these kind acts and negatively influenced her perceptions of them throughout her life.

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a powerful historical text. Jacobs is the first known African-American woman author of a slave narrative in the United States, making her a key historical figure. Jacob's novel offers a unique insight into life as a woman and a slave during the 1800s.

This question asks for evidence of kindness from slave-holders and non-slave-holders living in the South in the years before the Civil War. Though Jacob's narrative is clearly aimed at illustrating the horrors of slavery through her personal experiences—and in particular the challenges enslaved women face—there is some textual evidence that can be used to answer this question.

In chapter 1, Jacobs discusses how her grandmother's master and mistress treated her well. Her grandmother had a difficult childhood, "but as she grew older she evinced so much intelligence, and was so faithful, that her master and mistress could not help seeing it was for their interest to take care of such a valuable piece of property" (Ch.1). Though she was treated well, Jacob's grandmother was still viewed as property, and her masters' kindness was for their own benefit. Another example of a kind slave-holder is Jacobs's first mistress. This woman was raised by Jacobs's grandmother and grew up as a sort of "foster sister" to her mother. Jacobs describes how her mother was weaned off breast milk at only three-months-old so the white foster baby could nurse better (Ch. 1). After Jacobs's mother dies, she moves in with her mistress, who promised to treat her kindly:

No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed upon me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. (Ch.1)

While Jacobs is treated well by her mistress, she is completely reliant on her as a slave with no personal rights or property. When her mistress dies she says, "I asked myself what they would do with me... She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing... I could not help having some hope that she had left me free... But, alas! we all know that the memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her children from the auction block," (Ch. 1) and so Jacobs is bequeathed to the woman's niece, who is only five years old.

Jacobs admits that she enjoyed her time with her mistress and blesses her memory. However, she knows that "These God-breathing machines [slaves] are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend," (Ch. 1). Jacobs's first mistress can certainly be considered a kind slave-holder because she treated Jacobs well, relatively speaking. However, she still clearly viewed Jacobs as an object rather than a human being and so failed to release her from her enslavement upon her death. This is a trend in the first chapter of this novel. Even when slaves act virtuously, work hard, and serve their masters loyalty, they can never earn the right to be viewed as humans and not objects.

In Chapter 14, there is a moment of kindness from the former mistress of Jacobs's father. Jacobs sneaks her child to the church to be baptized, but because she and her parents were slaves, they have no legal right to their Christian names. Her father's former mistress offers for the baby to take her Christian name and gives a golden necklace to the baby. Though her intentions are kind, Jacobs is aware of the inequality that makes these gestures meaningful. She must accept a white person's name in order for her children to be baptized, only because the law does not recognize their right to a name. Additionally, she declines the gift of the necklace because "I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she might never feel the weight of slavery's chain, whose iron entirety into the sou," (Ch. 14). In these scenes, the relative kindness of white Southerners is polluted by the vast system of inequality the impacts every aspect of Jacobs' life.

To help you answer this question, I have provided several scenes from the text that describe kindness from white southerners. To understand the overall themes and message of this text, it is important to include Jacobs's perception of these acts of kindness. As I have discussed, Jacobs clearly sees that even kind white southerners view her as an object rather than a person and this shows the narrow limits of their kindness. Slave-holders in the 1800s were not, as a category, inherently evil people. However, this should not undermine the fact that slavery was an evil institution and resulted in the suffering of 3.9 million people as of 1860. It is important to keep these realities in mind when discussing slave narratives and to do so with respect to the experiences of the author.

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