Sexual Exploitation and Family Relations in Slave Narratives

In the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and many others, the family unit under slavery is torn apart as slaveholders methodically take advantage of the sense of alienation that comes from the separation of parent and child. Among the most disturbing exploits under slavery is the sanctioned sexual abuse that was rampant across the southern states. The slaveholder’s assertion of power sought to displace any semblance of order for the individual as well as the community. The disintegration of the family structure is not only a systematic method of oppression but also the consequence of the licentious barbarity of the slaveholder’s mentality. In the slave narratives, sexual exploitation under the peculiar institution demonstrates the unimaginable depths of moral depravity in the complex relationship between property and parentage and exemplifies how power structures replaced family structures. 

In many narratives the identity of the father is believed to be the slaveholder but this is not always empirically known. As Frederick Douglass states, “the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father” (Douglass 43). Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, both leaders of the abolitionist movement, refused to dwell on the identity of their fathers in their narratives. It was of little consequence who their fathers were. They reflect upon the reality that “the very concept of family relations, considered by many to be ‘universal’ in its application, ‘losses meaning’ since it can be invaded at any given and arbitrary moment by the property relations” (Drake 92). Their fathers were identified as the other, only known as white men, and a part of the larger system that repeated itself in the lives of so many others suffering in bondage. 

Douglass and Brown use the occasion of their parentage to identify themselves – their very births – with the abuses of slavery. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave Written by Himself, Douglass states that “it is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a vey early age” (42). William Wells Brown also accounts his parentage as secondary to his status as property, stating “the man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book he kept for that purpose” (13). Brown states, that of his six siblings, “no two…were children of the same father” (13). The family unit loses any sense of immediacy as “the slave child’s ‘human and familial status’ is disfigured…under the pressure of the [slave masters] patriarchal order” (Drake 92). 

Douglass recounts that he only met his mother several times and only because she was brave enough to make the journey by night at the risk of her own life (43). Still, the time they had together was inexplicably insufficient for meaningful emotional bonding to take place. Douglass recalls, “I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (43). Douglass’ separation from his mother documents that “the relation between the (slave) child and mother (community) must be destroyed in order for the child to fulfill its function in society; in the slave’s case, that function is property” (Drake 98). The narrative of Annie L. Burton, Memories of Childhood Slavery Days, she states she was introduced to her biological father “a dozen times,” though it was only an effort to humiliate him (7). Burton expresses the same distortion of familial identification to which she was subject to at the whims of her mistress. On the occasion of seeing Burton’s father in the distance, her mistress would make a very public display to “humble and shame” him. (7).

“Stop there, I say! Don’t you want to see and speak to and caress your darling child? She often speaks of you and wants to embrace her dear father. See what a bright and beautiful daughter she is, a perfect picture of yourself. Well, I declare, you are an affectionate father.” (Burton 8)

Burton goes on to say that he would always flee on his horse and never acknowledged himself to be her father (8). 

Harriet Jacobs’ narrative is an appeal to denounce the sexual abuse endured under slavery. Jacobs “focuses on the power relationship of masters and slaves and the ways in which (slave) women learn to manage the invasive sexuality of (white) men” (Braxton 384). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, sought to reach out to white women in the north and expose the realities of slavery from a woman’s perspective as made apparent with “the twin themes of abolition and feminism [being] interwoven in Jacobs text” (Braxton 385). In her personal story she sheds light on the vulnerabilities women endure from their masters and the extremes she took to escape her own. Knowing that Dr. Flint sold the slaves who had his children, Jacobs entered into an affair with another man and became pregnant in hopes of freeing herself from Dr. Flint’s plans for her submission.

Being the child of biracial parents, Jacobs could nearly pass for white. Many narratives describe the conditions of a biracial slave as suffering greater hardship and fear of sexual abuse. In William Wells Brown’s fictional work, Clotel, or, the Presidents Daughter, he poetically defends the family structure, asserting that the “invisible and incalculable influence of parental life acts more upon the child then all efforts of education, whether by means of instruction, precept, or exhortation” (327). In the story the primary character is drawn within an archetype of cyclical victimization and alienation from either race. Her fair complexion demarcates the slave who will be used for any and all purposes with the slave whose primary use is sexual gratification and the confirmation of the slave-owners power through violence. 

Frederick Douglass also insisted the life of a biracial slave was different and “such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with, than others” (42). Particularly the children of the slave-owner, who are “a constant offense to their mistress…ever disposed to find fault with them [she] is never better pleased then when she sees them under the lash” (42).  

The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; (Douglass 42)

The life of a slave living with the father subjects the child to the constant retribution of the mistress as well as that of his free sons who must “tie up his brother, of but a few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back” (Douglass 42).

However, Harriet Jacobs does not state that the cause of her master’s obsession with her was because of her complexion. She writes, “[n]o matter whether a slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death” (Jacobs 288). Perhaps the feminine perspective is less inclined to promote or validate a color hierarchy that the slave-owner uses to rationalize his behavior. 

In Incidents, Jacobs retells the extreme measures she took to escape perpetual sex slavery. What resulted was a continuance of drastic efforts to protect and rescue her children, and the discovery that the more she attempted to maintain a family structure the more impossible it became to do so. As Kimberly Drake notes, Harriet Jacobs’ narrative illustrates that the essential qualities of family security validate social integrity. In Incidents, Jacobs “ultimately revises the notion of woman’s relational identity; she shows that communities are necessary for her survival but must not obstruct her freedom and individuality” (98). To be successful in being a protecting parent “the community is a resource used by objectified subjects to combat that oppression and simultaneously to aid them in becoming somewhat ‘whole’ or ‘autonomous’” (98). In Incidents, the narrator is disowned by her grandmother for becoming pregnant as she cannot see it was an act of survival. What is viewed as an immoral act takes precedence of a more egregious impending victimization. 

Jean Fagan Yellin points out that “because its subject is the sexual oppression of women in slavery, Incidents presents a double critique of nineteenth-century American ideas and institutions” (270). Not only does Harriet Jacobs challenge the “institution of chattel slavery and its supporting ideology of white racism…it challenges traditional patriarchal institutions and ideas.” (Jean Fagan Yellin 270). The prominent theme, and documentation, of miscegenation in the narratives highlights not only the extremes of the abuses under slavery but the intensified obstacles one must overcome and escape. In Incidents, Jacobs retells the trials and eventual “success of her struggle to liberate herself and her children. She prevents her master from raping her, arranges for her children to be rescued from him, hides, escapes, and finally achieves freedom” (Yellin 270). Though none of this is achieved without first suffering both societal and familial punishment for her very attempt at securing freedom. 

In cases of sexual exploitation in the narratives, if the slaveholder is not suspected of being the father, it is a close relative, a neighbor, or someone in the community. Brown’s father, George Higgins, was a relative of his owner (14). Continuously, “the black father is suppressed by the white father to perpetuate the slave system through the maternal line. Both Jacobs and Douglas emphasize the black fathers disappearance while insisting the ‘Name of the Father’ is the name of the master” (Drake 99). Though the slaveholder’s lust reinforced the American landscape with sons and daughters inheriting the yoke of merchandise, a difference in complexion failed to redefine racial definitions or status of equality. 

Josiah Quincy Jr., a lawyer from Boston, wrote about how commonplace it was to see a man with his enslaved children during his travels through the Carolina’s. This particular author was more appalled by miscegenation itself that the complied abuses of slavery, but his statement still testifies to the frequency of the practice.  

It is far from being uncommon to see a gentleman at dinner, and his reputed offspring a slave to the master of the table…The fathers neither of them blushed or seem[ed] disconcerted. They were called men of worth, politeness and humanity. (Lemire 11)

At the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, hangs a double-sided critique of southern life. The painting is commonly referred to as “Virginian Luxuries.”

      (Lemire 54)

On one side is simply a portrait while on the other side the same man is exposed of his “brutal desires; ‘black’ men are subject to the white man’s stick or whip and ‘black’ women to the white man’s sexual advances” (Lemire 53). Whether the painting is condemning slavery or inter-racial sex is open to interpretation. 

Elise Lemire, in the book “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America, discusses three specific periods of widespread outcry against inter-racial sex between 1776 and 1865. In each period excessive propaganda is used to influence fears of inter-racial marriage and emancipation. Abolitionist came to be referred to as “amalgamationist” as it was believed that if they wished to see slaves freed than what they were really promoting was reproduction between races (51). 

                                        (Lemire 143)

This was a very successful strategy on the part of anti-abolitionists, as time and time again the conversation on slavery was turned to inter-racial marriage. When seen together it would be assumed that “black and white women can only be talking about the presumably eagerly sought inter-racial marriages that they supposedly aimed for abolitionism to engineer” (89). Propaganda in the form of poetry, pamphlets, and books were distributed in the north and south. The image above comes from a book published just one year before emancipation.                                  

James Hugo Johnston’s exhaustive research in Race Relation in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, complies many cases in which men in their mature years attempted to compensate for the mistakes of their youth in various wills and legal procedures. This petition from 1825 in King Williams County documents a mother attempting to secure freedom for her daughter after the death of her owner.

She is the illegitimate daughter of the late (____), who by his testement (sic) and last will as an act of justice and attonement (sic) for an error of an unguarded moment, bequeathed to his innocent offspring the boon of freedom and a pecuniary legacy of $1000. (218) 

There are numerous accounts of men leaving their slave children not only their freedom but also part or the entirety of an estate upon death (221-225). 

The will of John Stewart, of Petersburg, provided that Mary Vizzaneau, “my natural colored daughter” shall have all I have at the bank, amounting to $19,500 and the house and lot in that part of town called Gillfield, in which I now reside. (222)

The petition of William Kendall pleads for the emancipation of his son, stating, “it is with great concern and uneasiness that he looks forward to the possibility of his being a slave to any person” (219). There are many records of fathers who desire to provide for his children but he is helpless do so under the circumstance of his children being the property of someone else. Some of these men were more successful than others in purchasing their children’s freedom. As another record indicates, in some instances the father and slave-owner himself could not find a legal means to free his own children

He had indeed frequently thought of bequeathing to them at least their freedom, but years had elapsed without his being able to surmount the legal obstacles to their emancipation. (219)

 Paradoxically, the fear of inter-racial marriage thrived in the northern states where the majorities were to be found who favored an end to slavery. Of course, this only served to protect sexual servitude in the southern states. Such contradictory thinking in America demonstrates the spirit of revolt in the narratives as not only condemning slavery but white society as a whole, including those who allowed slavery to continue for so many years. For one not to fight against a corrupt and inhumane system is equal to participation in the development of that system.

In the narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Annie L. Burton and many others, the dissolution of family is framed into reader’s introduction of the narrator’s life experience. The role of the father is transferred from the parental figure to the slave system itself. The unspeakable liberties enacted by the slave-owner emulate a mythical competition with womankind though the “abuse of the sexuality and reproductive powers of the slave woman” (Braxton 380). Vicariously, the reader experiences the slaveholder’s assertion of power and the narrator’s orphaned sense of community. Though often, it is because of these limitations that the narrator finds the strength to affect the institution and inspire heroic movements through trenchant barriers. 

Primary Sources

Brown, William Wells. “Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown.” Five Slave Narratives. Ed. William Loren Katz. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Print

Burton, Annie L.. Six Women’s Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print. 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave. Written by Himself, with Related Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 280 – 310. Print.

Secondary Sources

Braxton, Joanne M. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: The Re-definition of the Slave Narrative Genre.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 27, Num 2, Winter 1986 (379 – 387). JSTOR. Web. 25 Sept. 2010.

Brown, William Wells. “Clotel; or, The president’s daughter.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 325 – 338. Print.

Drake, Kimberly. “Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender, and Identity in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.” MELUS 22.4 (1997): 91-108. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 25 Sept. 2010.

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 280 – 310. Print.

Johnston, James Hugo. Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South 1776 – 1860. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970. Print.

Lemire, Elise. “Miscegenation” Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Print.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Text and Context in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself.” The Slave’s Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 262 – 282. Print.