Upon seeing two girls, one white and one black, playing together carefree in antebellum Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs commented: “when I saw them embracing each other, and hear their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart.” Jaded by slavery’s unjust and seemingly inevitable fates for these girls’ friendship, Jacobs knew well the realities of being an African American woman in the Slave South. She endured exploitation, sexual coercion, and psychological and physical abuse by her controlling master, Dr. Norcom, an influential physician and slaveholder in the community. Jacobs refused to allow Dr. Norcom to control her life and, in effort to protect her family and achieve freedom, challenged the boundaries of her enslavement at every turn. The first slave narrative written by an African American woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs, serves an excellent lens through which to understand relationships of power in the antebellum South. Jacobs’ narrative demonstrates that slavery was not a monolithic institution of absolute power. Instead, the power dynamics of slavery frequently changed hands between master and slave, albeit how small. In examining Jacobs’ narrative we better understand the significance of religion, autonomy, and the institution of the family within slave life and how masters and slaves negotiated the character of slavery in Edenton. Slavery consisted of countless exchanges of power between master and slave and, as Jacobs intoned, “my master had the law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.”
Harriet Jacobs’ home in Edenton, North Carolina, was no exception to the rigid and racially divided world that slaveholders created in the South. White, slave owning men attempted to control every aspect of slave life and ordered southern society on ideas of racial superiority. They enforced unprecedented violence and labor upon their slaves and manipulated the law in order to deny free blacks most forms of legal standing. Plantation masters strategically designed the location of their slaves’ quarters, measured the cotton slaves picked by the ounce, and asserted slaveholding dominance through sexual coercion, the slave market, and psychological manipulation.
If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.
Despite their attempts, however, slaveholders were unable to create an absolute hierarchy of control. Slaves resisted subordination at every turn through subtle and overt resistance. They sometimes broke tools so they couldn’t work, ran away for short periods of time, known as truancy, and sometimes staged small or large rebellions against their enslavement. Subtly or overtly, slaves and free blacks resisted their enslavement and subordination in whatever degrees they could.
Just as slaves resisted their enslavement, they also shaped the character of it. Historian Ira Berlin explained in his book, Many Thousands Gone, that masters sometimes allowed their slaves to grow subsistence crops, a harvest that slaves cultivated for themselves in addition to a master’s labor demands. With these crops, slaves diversified their diet, typically prescribed to crude basics, and sold surplus to masters, neighbors, and local markets.
Although a subsistence crop demanded extra labor, it allowed slaves to construct a measure of control over their personal lives and, especially important, separate from the demands of slavery. With a small stipend from their surplus crops, slaves made their lives more comfortable with new clothing, foods, or games in order to alleviate the demands of their enslavement. Slaves also used this revenue in the hopes of someday purchasing their freedom. Although they did not outright challenge the institution of slavery with these small exchanges, they were able to shape the character and extent of their enslavement with the independence that subsistence crops provided. As Berlin explained, exchanges small and large between masters and slaves shifted the absolute power of the master and provided slaves a degree of control over their lives.
The church and Christian doctrine served as another tool that African Americans in the Edenton slave and free black communities used to resist and redefine slavery. Typical of many slave owners wishing to pacify their slaves and following the Nat Turner Rebellion, Jacobs described a time that Dr. Norcom invited a local pastor, “pious Mr. Pike,” to preach to the slaves. Jacobs recounted Mr. Pike’s sermons: “servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” Mr. Pikes’ sermon instructed slaves to revere their masters as Christ, to be submissive and docile, and, especially, to obey their masters in all thing: “obey your old master and your young master — your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master.”
Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by the law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another.
Despite slaveholders’ attempts to prescribe a distorted Christian doctrine to encourage submission and obedience, slaves interpreted Christianity in a much different way. Slaves reconstructed sermons to communicate messages of salvation from labor and exploitation, referencing the story of Moses and the Jewish slaves of Egypt. They also incorporated different elements of their African past into Christianity to make it their own by organizing religious shouts, dances, and tribal traditions.
In reinterpreting Christian doctrine, slaves shaped how they coped with and resisted their enslavement – sometimes at conflicting ends. Some slaves used God’s word to alleviate the hardship of slavery from their everyday lives and to hope for something better – salvation and freedom – at the work of a benevolent God. Jacobs’s grandmother, Aunt Martha, was regarded highly in the Edenton community for her piety and obedience and instructed Jacobs to thank God and pray for better days when in hardship. As Jacobs explained, “…did she strive to make us feel that it was the will of God: that He had seen fit to place us under such circumstances; and though it seemed hard, we ought to pray for contentment.” However, Jacobs condemned slavery and actively work towards freedom, rather than accepting their lives as prescribed by a benevolent God. Unlike her grandmother, Jacobs reasoned “it was much more the will of God that we should be situated as [Aunt Martha] was.” Although slaves did not all agree upon the place of Christianity within slavery, they used it to make sense of their place in the world and to reclaim a tool typically used by slaveholders to promote subservience and submission.
Jacobs’ personal experiences within slavery further demonstrate the exchanges between masters and slaves that shaped the power dynamics in Edenton; Jacobs endured unrelenting sexual harassment by her master, Dr. Norcom, throughout the majority of her enslavement. Psychologically manipulative, Dr. Norcom granted “choices” to Jacobs that were in reality a strategic plan to sexually and coercively dominate her. Most often, Dr. Norcom offered Jacobs these “choices” in whispers in hallways or in passing secret notes. In presenting his harassment to Jacobs as a choice, he attempted to make her complicit and responsible for the consequences depending on how she acted. One of his earliest options he imposed upon her occurred when he learned that an adolescent Jacobs wished to marry a free black man outside of his plantation; Dr. Norcom demanded that she choose one of his slaves instead.
Despite enduring relentless harassment, Jacobs redefined the boundaries of her enslavement and asserted her own power in her unequal relationship with Dr. Norcom. As he began “meeting (her) at every corner, behind every closed door” and “whispered foul things” in her ear that “would make any man ashamed,” Jacobs resisted and defied Dr. Norcom’s advances by taking on a white lover, Mr. Sands, a local lawyer. In doing so, Jacobs asserted ownership over herself and challenged Dr. Norcom’s power by welcoming a white lover of her own choosing. From her relationship with Mr. Sands, Jacobs gave birth to two children and her dedication to her family reveals the importance of the institution of the family in slave life. Slaves used familial relationships to create identities with loved ones, claim a sense of belonging, and temporarily escape the abuses of slavery. As mothers, fathers, and children were separated because of death, sale, or escape, close friends and distant relatives often replaced the nuclear family in slave communities. Jacobs’ grandmother fulfilled many roles to Jacobs in addition to maternal grandmother; she served as a mother, a grandmother, a shield from Dr. Norcom, and a moral Christian conscience.
However, the institution of the family was uncertain and vulnerable, too. Close relationships were severed at the interests of the slave market and many slave communities struggled to keep their loved ones together. Some slaves and free blacks resented familial dissolution even in the light of freedom. After news reached Edenton that Jacobs’ brother, William, escaped his enslavement and travelled to the North, Aunt Martha mourned him as a lost loved one and admonished his actions. Just as slavery was not a monolithic institution of subordination and power, freedom was not a single ideal that all slaves welcomed in the same way. Rather than praising William’s freedom, Aunt Martha desired above all that her family remain together and believed that God’s benevolence would deliver them in time.
Masters manipulated the vulnerability of the slave family in specific ways to achieve strategic domination, as well. Within Jacobs and Dr. Norcom’s coercive relationship, Aunt Martha’s positive community presence acted as a shield and protected Jacobs from Dr. Norcom’s outright abuses. Despite being a free black, Jacobs’ grandmother held significant influence in the racially divided Edenton community in part because of her upright and pious character. Therefore, Dr. Norcom had to calculate strategies to successfully coerce Jacobs so that Aunt Martha would not become aware and publicly persecute him. As he “whispered foul things” in her ear, Dr. Norcom reinforced a continuing feeling of shame and guilt upon Jacobs and threatened that if she ever told her grandmother of his actions he would kill everyone Jacobs loved. Norcom feared Aunt Martha’s influence and, in order to avoid a stain upon his community character, strategically intimidated Jacobs and realigned his power over her.
It is important to examine the reasons that Dr. Norcom had to strategically calculate his coercion of Jacobs in a society that justified and granted white slaveholding men nearly absolute power over their human chattel. Ultimately, slavery was a carefully calculated institution of negotiations between masters and slaves. While slaves never held the upper hand, they were able to negotiate the character of their enslavement and engage different aspects of slavery, such as the subsistence crop, Christian doctrine, and familial relationships, to improve their lives and resist the unrelenting power of slaveholders. Further, masters continually confronted the reality that their supposed absolute power was at risk and – in order to maintain power and authority –calculated plans of subordination, coercion, and exploitation towards their slaves.
In conclusion, Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative revealed the inherent negotiation within slavery and how masters and slaves shaped and reshaped the power dynamics of the institution. Jacobs further demonstrated the importance that religion, independence and autonomy, and the institution of the family held within slave communities. By examining the ways that slaves and masters constructed and reconstructed power relationships we better understand how slaves and free blacks understood their place in the Slave South and the role of freedom within it. Although slavery was a fundamentally brutal and exploitative system grounded in violence, coercion, and manipulation, slaves like Harriet Jacobs and masters like Dr. Norcom constantly negotiated the boundaries of slavery. In all, Jacobs’ narrative and struggle to resist her enslavement contributed to a world where the two children she once pitied could embrace each other without the injustice of a Slave Society in Edenton, North Carolina.