Mothers, Daughters, and "Young Girls Ambition": the Reconfiguration of Womennulls Slave Narratives
Black, Caitlin Hays
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Subjectwomen, slavery, slave narratives
Risking punishment and death, Linda Brent flees to the North. Sick of her master’s sexual advances and worried for her children’s futures—as well as her own—escape is her only option. Harriet Jacobs’ experiences, as portrayed through the character Linda Brent, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) have become the prototype for the female equivalent to the male slave narrative. The male narrator’s quest for freedom and knowledge is substituted by a female narrator, who seeks freedom for both herself and her children: the shift is one from individual to community and from the public, male sphere of education to the private, female realm of motherhood and domesticity. With Jacobs’ narrative positioned at the center of the genre, scholars have come to define the woman’s slave narrative as a place where the sexual conflict unique to the bondswoman’s experience plays out through the advances of white masters, the birth of illegitimate children, and the presence of jealous mistresses. The quest for freedom functions as a means of breaking the cycle of sexual assault. Furthermore, escape provides assurance of a better life for one’s children, a life where they need not experience the oppression and assault their mothers endured.--- But what about the narratives of Louisa Picquet (1861), Old Elizabeth (1863), Mattie Jackson (1866), Bethany Veney (1889), Lucy Delaney (1891), Kate Drumgoold (1898), and Annie Burton (1909)? For the most part, these narrators are not motivated by their children; in fact, most of these narrators portray themselves as children throughout a significant portion of their narratives. Additionally, these narratives often embed, rather than display, the issues of sexual conflict that distinguished Harriet Jacobs’ experiences. In relying too much on Incidents to define the women’s slave narrative genre and bridge the gap between male and female slave narratives, scholars have forgotten—or worse, ignored—the more prevalent experiences in the woman’s slave narrative. The plots of these lesser-known stories center on a young woman who, upon freedom, explores opportunities other than, or in addition to, motherhood.--- The choices these narrators make in portraying themselves, their mothers, and even their white mistresses profoundly affect the composition of the genre; these characters move the action of the narratives into a distinct, female space. The use of a female sphere shifts the focus of these stories away from the sexual encounters between masters their slaves and towards the dynamics between mistresses and slaves. The female sphere also complicates the readers’ understanding of the narratives’ heroic figure. The narrators position their mothers as the story’s hero in the initial part of their stories; the daughter-narrators’ interpretation of their mothers provides readers with a different perspective on the African-American heroic mother from what Incidents provides. In the second stage of their stories, the narrators themselves function as a second, equally significant type of African-American female hero, one who captures the post-slavery experiences of African-American women. Through both the mother and daughter heroic figures, the genre helped to shape African-American race and culture in the nebulous years surrounding the Civil War. --- To see how women’s slave narratives serve as forms of resistance and collectively produce two female heroes, we must leave behind the familiar territory of Linda Brent and venture into the scholarly unknown of women’s slave narratives. This argument only looks at slave narratives written by or about antebellum African American women and will attempt to turn the discussion away from the more studied female slave narratives and towards lesser know, but equally informative, texts. Both slave narratives physically written or dictated by African American women are included in this argument. Neither method is absolutely authentic; rather, the texts will be considered as artifacts in themselves. The argument examines narratives published in the United States after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and before the beginning of the WPA narratives (collected 1936-1938). Accordingly, this span of time allows for a diverse range of experiences while also providing certain continuities among the narratives. The argument also will not include narratives focused on events outside of the continental United States simply to provide continuity in experience among the lives considered. --- This argument also turns the focus away from more frequently discussed narratives. Though it is impossible to ignore Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in a discussion of women’s slave narratives, the text is used only as it enables a better understanding of the genre as a whole. No analysis comes from this text nor are other texts considered against Incidents. In its place, this argument will analyze Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life (1861), Memoirs of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman (1863), The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866), The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (1889), From Darkness Cometh the Light or Struggles for Freedom (1891), A Slave Girl’s Story (1898), and Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days (1909). Each text provides fresh insight on slave women’s experiences in the years surrounding the Civil War.
Franklin and Marshall College Archives, Undergraduate Honors Thesis 2011
- F&M Theses Collection