Essay On Frederick Douglass And Harriet Jacobs

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Similarities

3. Family ties

4. Gender difference
4.1 Sexual exploitation
4.2 Womanhood - Manhood

5. Literacy and liberation

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind” (From the opening of the film Gone with the Wind, 1939)

"We're not Americans, we're Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock - that rock landed on us.”(Malcolm X)

Besides the virtual extermination of the native Indian population it is the brutal and dreadful treatment of Afro-American slaves in the 19th century which depicts some of the darkest and saddest chapters in the history of the United States. Still today the vestiges of slavery can be felt.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) are two autobiographies, written by two former slaves, who succeeded in escaping slavery and all its inexpressible cruelties. They are considered two of the most influential, and groundbreaking works of the Antebellum Period, which bear witness to slavery in the United States.

These two narratives “that have become twin classics in African American literature course” (cf. Boesenberg 1999: 121), shall be compared, discussed and analysed in this paper. However, Boesenberg’s classification of the texts as “twin classics” could be misread and give rise to misinterpretation, as it may not be the most fitting term. Twins are widely thought of being almost the same. One might argue that this is not entirely true for Jacobs’s and Douglass’s narratives.

The aim of this paper will be to point out some crucial similarities and differences between Douglass’s and Jacobs’s autobiographies. The first part of the paper briefly introduces some important similarities of the two narratives. In a second part focus will be given to distinctive features of these texts: family ties, gender difference, sexual exploitation, and manhood and womanhood. In a third part the motif of literacy and its meaning for the author’s liberation will be discussed. The conclusion summarizes the preceded chapters and critically disputes Boesenberg’s statement of the twin classics.

2. Similarities

At first glance, the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, and their experiences described during their lives in slavery seem to have a lot in common. Both narratives present similar problems and convey similar messages to the audience. Both authors lived during the same decade and had to endure slavery in regions of the South, Maryland and South Carolina, respectively, where slavery was asserted in the most radical and merciless manner. Both Douglass and Jacobs finally succeeded in escaping slavery and got involved in the Anti-Slavery-Movement in the Free States of the North. At first they did not feel very comfortable writing or talking about their experiences as slaves to a largely white auditorium, but they eventually became leaders in the abolitionist movement.

Like many other slaves, Douglass and Jacobs had to suffer from the early loss of their mothers. This happened at the age of six or seven, at which time they first began to realize their status as slaves. "When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave." (Jacobs 2004: 7) Although each author gives descriptions of numerous examples of the inhumanity and mischief of slavery, both of them also emphasize that in some respects they lead better and more privileged lives than most other slaves. During their later childhood years, for example, they shared a common experience, namely a beneficial relationship with a kind mistress who taught them to read and write. At the time this was a privilege, rarely falling to the lot of a slave (cf. Jacobs 2004: 8). As we shall see later on in chapter three, literacy was to become one of the determining factors for both their physical and intellectual emancipation. Moreover, literacy eventually played a very important role in their decision to escape. Nevertheless, most of the experiences and incidents portrayed in their narratives can be viewed as representative of the nineteenth century Afro American slave.

As can be seen, there are indeed some similarities between Douglass’s and Jacobs’s narratives. However, as Stephen Matterson properly recognizes, there are some crucial differences between them which “seem so substantial as almost to invalidate any grounds for meaningful comparison” (Matterson 1999: 82). Some of the most important distinguishing features shall be discussed in the following chapters.

3. Family ties

Jacobs’s Incidents is more focused on the family and gives more emphasis on the role of the woman than Douglass’s Narrative. Even in the most hopeless moments in her narrative Jacobs describes that she always enjoyed, and was supported by the presence of a caring family around her. Her aunts, uncles, cousins, her grandmother, and especially her children gave her strength and stamina at all times, and her family was a main concern throughout the entire narrative. Whereas in Douglass autobiography, no such strong family ties are portrayed. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; […] My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant – before I knew her as my mother. […] Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger" (Douglass 2004: 18f). There are different propositions made by Douglass as far as his father’s identity is concerned. In the three autobiographies that he wrote he provides a different account of his father.[1] In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the one this paper refers to, Douglass states that all he knows about his father is that he was a white man. (ibid).

Notwithstanding Jacobs lost her mother at about the same age as Douglass, Jacobs’s feelings towards her mother, at the beginning of her autobiography, were not described as indifferent as those of Douglass. “I grieved for her, and my young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and my little brother.” (Jacobs 2004: 133) Jacobs father suddenly died soon after she had become the property of Dr. Flint’s little daughter. Jacobs recalls that she was going to go to her father’s house the day after, but was not allowed to. Filled with grief and anger, she cynically posed the question. “What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property” (ibid: 137).

Soon after the death of her mother, Jacobs was given into the hands of her grandmother, who she called Aunt Marthy and who “had as much as possible, been a mother to her orphan grandchildren” (Gibson 1996: 165).

The relation between Jacobs and her grandmother, which would prove to be a most beneficial gift for her, describes another significant way in which Douglass’s and Jacob’s experiences differ.[2] From the beginning of her narrative throughout the entire text, Jacobs expresses her gratitude towards this family member, who was of the utmost significance to her. “To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts” (Jacobs 2004: 133). “She was so loving, so sympathizing! She always met us with a smile, and listened with patience to all our sorrows . She spoke so hopefully, that unconsciously the clouds gave place to sunshine” (ibid: 147). Even though Jacobs did not always agree with her grandmother in every single matter, the importance of aunt Marthy for her cannot be overestimated.[3]

Joanne Braxton even argues that “without her example and her brilliant organization of Linda’s support system, escape for Linda would have been impossible” (Braxton 1989: 30). Donald B. Gibson also recognizes the grandmother’s being most valuable attachment figure for Jacobs by assigning her to the role of the lacking mother. “The space given to the grandmother”, reports Gibson, “is in effect space given to the mother, since the relationship between Harriet and her grandmother is more like that between mother and child than otherwise” (Gibson 1996: 165).

In contrast to Jacobs, Douglass did not enjoy the support of such an invaluable companion. Although Douglass also had a grandmother, he failed to maintain contact with her, since she lived far away. As far as his two sisters and his brother are concerned, Douglass notes that the early separation from their mother tainted their relationship in their memories. (cf. Douglass 2004: 41). Not only did Douglass not have such strong family ties like Jacobs. He also had to undergo a traumatic experience as a young boy when witnessing the bloody whipping and torture of his aunt Hester. Douglass describes this experience as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery” (ibid: 21). In contrast to Jacobs, the lack of the familial and also the communal assistance, which Jacobs received, and what Joanne Braxton calls “the fruit of a collective effort”, forces Douglass to escape from slavery without support and in a relatively independent manner (cf. Braxton 1989: 19).


[1] These are: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

[2] Joanne Braxton, in her article “Outraged Mother and Articulate Heroin: Linda Brent and the Slave Narrative Genre” very well describes in detail the traits of Linda’s grandmother: “Aunt Marthy, a free woman, becomes Linda’s sustaining force and primary role model. Intelligent, self-sufficient, quick-witted, pious, protective, nurturing, and morally strict, Aunt Marthy is also wise, noble, and courageous. Aunt Marthy herself is an outraged mother. Skilled in the use of invective and insult, as well as silence, Aunt Marthy successfully confronts Dr. Flint at crucial points in the narrative; she sasses him, she outwits him, and she provides food and shelter for both Linda and Linda’s children. Aunt Marty is, in short, the bearer of a system of values as well as the carrier of the female version of the black heroic archetype. Aunt Marthy teaches and demonstrates the values and practical principles of sacrifice and survival” (Braxton 1989: 30).

[3] Aunt Marthy’s significance for Jacobs becomes clear in several situations, for example when Jacobs overcomes with guilt because of her grandmother's disapproval of her sexual relationship with the father of her children.

Throughout the abolition movement, slaves, both men and women, were making attempts to escape from the shackles of slavery. If slaves were fortunate enough to make it to the North and obtain their freedom, many would then put their stories down into written form in hopes that it would aid in the emancipation of their brethren. Both men and women came forward to publish their stories, often under pseudonyms to ensure their safety. Although all slave autobiographies focused on the desire for and quest towards gaining freedom, the manner in which the stories were presented tended to vary between the sexes. The struggles encountered, focus of thought, and views on the family unit all differed between male and female slaves. The self-written autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs showcase the thoughts of men and women on these topics and allow for a comparison of the experience of slavery between genders.

As the autobiographies of Douglass and Jacobs are compared, a distinction can be made between the core values and focus of thought between the genders. Douglass had an obvious thirst for knowledge and understanding, which he constantly fought towards obtaining. He was taught the alphabet and how to spell at a young age by his mistress. However, his lessons were abruptly cancelled when his master proclaimed “If you teach that nigger to read, there will be no keeping him. He will forever be unfit to be a slave (Douglass, 33).” Douglass soon began to recognize that an education meant power (Morgan, 5). Douglass noted that it was in that moment that he recognized the one true way to escape from slavery to freedom: an education. Immediately after, he “… set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read (Douglass, 34).” Being restricted to learn only fueled his passion to gain knowledge, freedom, and the respect that came along with them. Even using his own coy devices to trick young school boys to trick them into teaching him to write, Douglass let nothing keep him from gaining an education (Douglass, 43). His desire for education was very clear, and he even uses this to his advantage in the writing style of his autobiography. He tells his story as if it were a gathering of knowledge along the journey to freedom. Additionally, he consistently uses the bible and political documents to develop and shape his intellectual views. He recognizes the importance and intelligence that is represented through validating thoughts and ideas with sources. As Douglass continued to gain an education, he developed into the person who he desired to be: a valuable and influential member of society.

In contrast, Jacobs had extremely strong family ties and relationships which impacted every decision that she made. Since she was raised with her mother and some immediate family members, family values very quickly became a part of who she was. The influence that Jacob’s grandmother had on her was substantial. All throughout the autobiography, Jacobs discusses the selfless actions that her grandmother makes to keep the family together. As Jacobs grows, the characteristics of her grandmother are exhibited in herself through her attempts to keep her family close and her children safe. The well being of her family is a constant worry to Jacobs, and she strives for a day when her family can live together in freedom. She frequently speaks of tearful and emotion-filled reunions, departures, and conversations between her and her family members. Yet, she consistently notes that her family and children are her only reason for staying alive. Every step that Jacobs made towards her freedom was impacted greatly by the influence of her family members. Clearly, relationships and family values were extremely important to Jacobs and they impacted her journey towards freedom.

The emphasis on family values which Jacobs had is typical of most female slave writers, but contrasts with the family views which males had. In contrast to Jacobs, Frederick Douglass seemed distant about family matters, and focused very little on relationships. The beginning of the autobiography is the only place where Douglass shows notable emotion. As he grows older and continues in his journey towards freedom, his emotion towards family related memories becomes distant. In the beginning of his autobiography, he quickly discusses what little he knows about his family, but shows no emotional attachment in the presentation of this information (Douglass, 2). Later on, he refers to his Aunt Hester being whipped viciously. It is here, in this scene, that Douglass begins to show some emotion (Douglass, 6). He presents the story of his aunt in a breathless manner that indicates a helpless tone, and uses very strong descriptive words to show the horrors he saw. This emotion is displayed likely because the beginning is written about the experiences of his childhood, which is often a time in which a person is greatly impacted.

As his autobiography continues and Douglass tells more stories, the details appear somewhat cold and distant, showing very little emotion. Little to no detail was provided when Douglass was married or had children. As previously mentioned, Douglass, like most male slaves, was on a quest for manliness and education. This lack of emotion in his writing does not indicate that he did not care, but rather further testifies the fact that men focus on a more informative approach. Douglass likely leaves out emotional details intentionally to keep the stories factual and clear to the reader. His writing style demonstrates a difference between the sexes and provides an example of how men prefer to focus on intellectual topics instead.

As previously mentioned, Jacobs was very family-oriented and relationships were the main focus of her life. Being a mother, Jacobs was able to share an entirely different and much more detailed perspective of the family unit. Having children created a new sense of urgency in Jacobs to obtain freedom for herself and her children. Additionally, her actions were always made with her two children’s best interest in mind. Jacobs made countless painful decisions, including the sending away of her children. She did this reluctantly, but knew that the decision needed to be made for their safety and well-being. The family views that Jacobs presented are that which only a loving mother could provide. She presents a heartbreaking image of her feelings of simultaneous love and regret for her children. The birth of her daughter, which one would expect to be a very happy occasion for Jacobs, was actually bittersweet. She spoke of the day, saying: “when they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before (Jacobs Kindle Location 1268). She elaborates on her feelings further, saying that her worry stems from the difficulties she knows her daughter will face as a slave woman. Here Jacobs effectively demonstrates the love of a mother and how her concerns expand beyond those for just herself. She differs from Douglass because she acts in a more selfless manner; rather than focusing on the freedom of herself alone, she desires to have her entire family free with her. Her passion is perfectly expressed when she says: “I knew the doom that awaited my fair baby in slavery, and I determined to save her from it, or perish in the attempt (Jacobs Kindle Location 1480).

Slavery was a terrible event that left no gender unscathed by its viscous wrath. The living conditions primarily relied on the slaveholder’s willingness to provide, but most slaves were found to be overworked, underfed, and living in fear (The Slave Experience). The fear experienced by the slaves was a direct result of the consequences that were applied if a slave failed at completing the slaveholder’s requested tasks. Most of the fears were shared by both genders, yet there appeared to be a specific type of struggle encountered depending on sex. Men struggled with a desire for achieving manliness in society, whereas women encountered significant sexual harassment and abuse.

Frederick Douglass provides a clear example of the male slave’s desire for manliness. White men were viewed as independent and powerful – traits which, under slavery, black men could not have, yet still desired. Slaves could do nothing to protect themselves against the overseers or masters and could be punished under any circumstances. This creates a sense of defenseless which especially bothered most slave men during this time. These men, who desired to be viewed as strong leaders, were made out to be weak and defenseless cowards by slavery. Even Jacobs noted the inferiority of the black man (Jacobs, Kindle Location 716). The key example of a desire for manliness in Douglass’s autobiography is shown by his famous fight with the overseer, Mr. Covey. Douglass, fueled by distaste for the man who mistreats him so badly and desire to be independent, bravely defends himself when Covey begins to initiate a fight. He describes his fight with Covey as an incident in which he took great satisfaction and felt his manhood was revived (Douglass, 72). He later adds that since that after that episode, he participated in a few more fights, but never was whipped again (Douglass, 73). This can be considered a turning point for Douglass, as after this incident he regained a sense of pride and strength within himself. Manliness is a desired characteristic of a male and it is something which men contribute to their identity. When Douglass fought for and regained his manliness, he essentially regained his personal value and importance as a person.

Women were also viewed as valuable sources of labor, but they were also viewed as sexual objects available for the slaveholder’s pleasure. Having women as property merely encouraged the slaveholders to discredit the delicate nature of a woman and take advantage of them in whichever way they please. The slave women were expected to completely cast aside their own feelings and values to perform all the manual labor of a man, the housework of a woman, and the pleasure of a mistress. Additionally, the sanction of marriage and love was viewed by slaveholders as meaningless to the slaves. Douglass once reported witnessing a relentless flogging of his Aunt Hester, who had gone against her master’s demands to cease her visits to a young man whom she was interested in (Douglass, 6). Douglass also mentioned in his autobiography that his overseer Mr. Covey had purchased a female simply for means of being a ‘breeder’ (Douglass, 62). The woman was forced to lie with a married man until she was with child; once she gave birth, she was then viewed as useful by Mr.Covey. These examples show just a small view into the horrors that female slaves were forced to experience.

Yet even more disturbing is the representation of the abuse of women presented in Harriet Jacob’s autobiography. Beginning in chapter five, titled “The Trials of Girlhood,” Jacobs begin to describe the disturbing relationship between herself and her master, Dr. Flint. Dr. Flint was in constant sexual pursuit of Jacobs, and utilized many different forms of contact to ‘propose’ his intentions, such as direct conversion, written letters, and even attempted to deceive her (Jacobs Kindle location 436). Jacobs describes her master’s constant advancements by saying “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him (Jacobs Kindle location 455).” Dr. Flint was a slaveholder who had made his intentions and desires clear and fully intended on forcing Jacobs to submit. Furthermore, Dr. Flint was aware of the close relationship which Jacobs had with her grandmother, and swore to kill her if she “was not as silent as the grave” about his advancements (Jacobs Kindle Location 464). Although the slaveholders had a desire to utilize their property in whichever way they saw fit, they still did not wish to have their ‘dirty laundry’ aired to the public. The slaveholder’s desire to keep such villainous acts secret shows that the slaveholder is somewhat aware of the devilish acts he is committing. Yet still the slaveholder is more concerned with his own values, advancements and desires that the possible negative publicity outweighs the value of a life.

The desperate actions that Jacobs took to evade relations with Dr. Flint provide a clear example of the psychological effects that the sexual harassment had on women. Jacobs notes that “slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own (Jacobs Kindle Location, 1269).” The harsh conditions of slavery and additional sexual harassment would lead slaves to act in ways which went against their personal and moral values. Slavery crushed a person down into a shell of which they once were and completely destroyed the virtue of personal worth. Jacobs was raised to behave as a lady, and once such quality which she held dear to her heart was her purity. The harsh sexual harassment that Jacobs encountered eventually caused her to think and behave in a manner that was not like her. She fought to remain pure for a long time, but eventually became tired of avoiding Dr. Flint’s advancements, and became pregnant by a white family friend, to whom she had no romantic connections to. Jacobs was actively aware that her master would lose interest in her if she had interest in another and especially if she were with child. Dr. Flint would quickly send away any slave women with whom he had past relations with because “He never allowed his offspring by slaves to remain long in sight of himself and his wife (Jacobs Kindle Location 902).” She used this knowledge to take a chance, and ultimately had to give up her personal values as a means to escape the terrible advances of her master.

There is a clear shift in focus observed as she moves towards living for personal moral values to living for survival. Jacobs essentially resented her owner so strongly, that she willfully gave up her virginity to a man whom she assumed could eventually provide her freedom. Throughout the rest of the novel, Jacobs frequently mentions the guilt that she encountered upon making the life-changing decision to become pregnant. The regret she felt was painstakingly strong, and as a result, she felt disappointed in herself constantly. The effects of sexual harassment and abuse clearly had more impact than just the physical violation of women. The additional harassment experienced had a serious impact on the minds and values of slave women, and Jacobs’ story provides excellent evidence of that.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl by Harriet Jacobs provide comparable examples that showcase the differences between the gender-specific experiences of slavery. Men and women both went through the same trials of slavery, yet they experienced them in different ways. While men were on an internal quest for manliness and intelligence, women faced the emotional and family struggles related to the unwanted advances from their masters. Although men and women may have coped with the trials of slavery differently, whether it was through a search for education or the reliance on family members, they both shared same terrible evil of slavery. As different as the two sexes may be, one characteristic united them in their quest towards freedom: perseverance. It was with perseverance that the two genders were able blur the lines between their differences and fight together towards their freedom.  


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2014 Cunningham Writing ContestAcademicSecond Place2014-04-03

Justine Phipps


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