Sunday, 7 September 2014

Review of Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl

So this is potentially the last slave narrative I'm going to be reading for a while, and I've learnt a lot during my experience. The key thing I've realised is that grouping all of these texts under the category of "slave narrative" doesn't really highlight just how diverse they are. Each one is written in a different narrative style: some are first person, some third; some written poetically, and some (as in this case) written in a rather matter-of-fact manner. They also explore different aspects of slavery, from focusing on the brutality of tricking free men and women into slavery, to how Christianity impacts the slave trade. 

Although Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl contains some important messages, I have to say that it is not the narrative which I found most interesting to read on either a contextual and a literary level. It follows the story of Linda Brent, a woman born into slavery. Considering how long ago this book was published, I'm going to give quite a few spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph now if you don't want to hear them! Linda's grandmother bought her own freedom and lives near to Linda's master's house. She has taught her how to be a Christian. Unfortunately, as Linda reaches puberty her master gets other ideas and begins to whisper sexual things to her and repeatedly attempts to take her virginity. Linda suffers through the abuse she receives both from him and her mistress and steadfastly refuses his attempts at seduction on every occasion. However, after a number of years of this she wishes to take revenge upon him, and does so by having sex with another white man who is not her master. She has two children with him. Sadly, the children are technically the property of her master. She knows she must escape from this master so that he will not sell her children far away to punish her. With this in mind, Linda goes into hiding, and spends several years concealed in a small, dark, damp hole in her grandmother's house. Eventually she escapes to New York, but finds that this "free state" is not as free for a coloured person, especially not a fugitive slave, as she initially thought. Her and her children are eventually reunited and, after a number of years, her master dies and her freedom is bought for her so that she can live in peace.

I usually write a little piece about what has made each of these slave narratives different from the others. Due to the title of this one, I expected to be writing a piece about gender. However, although the focus was on the sufferings female slaves were made subject to, the most striking aspect of it for me was the fact that escaping to the north did not solve the problems of all slaves. Many of the other slave narratives I have read have ended in happiness for those who escape to the north, almost to an idyllic extent. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, however, indicated that there were some truths behind the negative stories masters often told about the north to discourage slaves from running away there. Linda found that, although everyone was technically permitted to be free there, coloured people were often at a great disadvantage. For example, in the south only white people were allowed to ride in the first class car cabins, and slaves had to ride in a separate one. In the north again white people could ride in the first class one, but coloured people had to ride in an inferior one and yet pay for the privilege of doing so! The north was supposed to be a place of equality, yet it was anything but this. Linda had to struggle for everything she got, and repeatedly suffered from prejudice. Nor was she free from her original captors: The Fugitive Slave Act meant that many of them came up from the South to reclaim their "property" with the help of white people living in northern states. This indicates that a slave's suffering did not end with their successful escape to the north, and in this way offered a new light on the subject.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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