Harriet Jacobs' Humanity and Sexuality: Novian Whitsitt's Sabattical Project

Novian Whitsitt, Professor of Africana Studies and English, is on sabbatical during the 2013-14 school year. He is spending the year engaged in an exciting project on the layers of meaning in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. He shares with us the contours of his project:

"My current sabbatical project continues upon the research that I started during my last sabbatical, which was an analysis of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That research culminated in the publication entitled, “Reading between the Lines: The Black Cultural Tradition of Masking in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (published in Frontiers:  Journal of Women’s Studies, 2010).  This article looks at the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs through the lens of “masking.”  “Masking” becomes an ideal theoretical model for evaluating the narrative and thematic dimensions of Jacobs’s work.  More specifically, it helps to shed light upon the narrative strategy that Jacobs employs for leaving clues about the true nature of the relationship between pseudonymous Linda Brent and her slave master Dr. Flint, a tale of sexual abuse.  My analysis of the narrative is currently relevant because of a scholarly point of contention about a particular, yet significant, detail in Harriet Jacobs’s narrative.  Jacobs would have readers believe that she successfully dodged her slave master’s persistent attempts of sexually assaulting her.  While many scholars enjoy discussions that explore the richness of Jacobs’s rhetorical strategies and the accepted level of fictionalizing associated with any type of autobiographical endeavor, few have challenged Jacobs’s authorial claims of candor, for the narrative has achieved an almost reverential place within the canon of black literature.  However, a speculative reading of Brent’s being sexually assaulted by Flint is not only plausible but arguably more credible.  At work in Jacobs’s narrative repertoire is the black cultural tradition of “masking,” a technique of double meaning that allows the storyteller to make accessible a hidden message only to those readers attuned to the secretive signs embedded within the story.   Last summer, I had the privilege of participating in a Yale seminar on slave narratives sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the group of twenty slave narrative scholars gathered there critiqued and affirmed the direction of my research on Jacobs and black women authors.

"Jacobs’ narrative offers an ideal illustration of the multiple social discourses faced by female slave narrators.  Accepted notions on humanity, race, gender, sexuality, and religion must be addressed simultaneously, and black women writers exhibit deft ability in embracing and challenging such social norms in the interest of their political goals.  In the antebellum and post-bellum period, it was difficult for white America to perceive blacks (not just slaves and ex-slaves) as authentically capable of intellectual pursuits.  Because of  increasing southern claims, from 1830 on, that blacks were by nature subhuman creatures and slavery therefore a positive good, the slave narrators and abolitionists made it one of their central concerns to establish the full humanity of the slave.  They had to find different strategies to persuade their audience of their dignity and respectability.  Now we have to add to this portrait of public skepticism the factor of sex.  For African-American women writers, the resistance to the authority of blacks and slaves was compounded by gender prejudices.  It was difficult for the public to fully accept that black women could be capable of creating intelligent and eloquent literary and political compositions.

"So the central question becomes, “How do black women walk the rhetorical line of challenging the racial and gender status quos while successfully building support among readers?”  I will read well known works by Mary Prince, Elizabeth Keckley, and Harriet Wilson, and I’ll compliment them with recently archived oral narratives by Charlotte Brooks, Chloe Spear, Martha Brown, and Elleanor Eldridge.  What strategies do these women employ when establishing their humanity and womanhood?  How do the different chosen strategies prove to be specifically relevant to the social position of each author?  In other words, how do differing slave experiences, educational exposure, and familial circumstances among women authors alter their stories?  Can we see any thematic and topic trends that distinguish the written and oral accounts?  Despite such differences in social conditions of the authors, can one begin to recognize any unique aesthetics emerging within the rhetorical choices and subject concerns of women narrators? And finally, how do such narrative choices compare to those exhibited by their male counterparts?  Exploration of these questions will ultimately lead to scholarship in peer-reviewed journals of African-American literature, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies.  This project is quite substantial, and a book will ideally be the fruit of this labor over the next few years."

Novian Whitsitt
Harriet Jacobs from the Harriet Jacobs Papers

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