Harriet Jacobs resistance to Black Female oppression through combination of literary styles

The exchange of stories from enslaved women to their amanuensis embodied “a sentimental ideal in which experience is not individual property”(Nudelman pg. 955) but rather a package of facts easily shared from the writer to the audience. This form of writing unintentionally discriminated against black women by subjecting them to “re-experience the pain of [their] own corruption”(pg. 955)  and harming the overall view of black women in the eyes of their genteel audience.  In 1861, Louisa Picquet’s narrative, Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life, and Harriet Jacobs self authored narrative, Incidents in the life of a Slave girl, were published. Both narratives use the sentimental style of writing to share their feelings regarding their history in order to create empathy for enslaved black women. Simultaneously, both Louisa Picquet and Harriet Jacobs recreate self-respect for themselves. However,  Harriet Jacobs’s combined use of sentimental and contrast rhetoric created a new form of literary writing never before seen in a female slave narrative.


Louisa Picquet’s narrative was written by her amanuensis, Rev. H. Mattison, “as taken from her lips by the writer in…May 1860”(Mattison pg. 45). The narrative is laid out in the style of Question/Answer: Mattison asked the questions while Louisa Picquet answered. Louisa Picquet suffered sexual attacks as “a little girl, not fourteen years old”(pg. 49) by Cook. With the help of Mrs. Bachelor, she was able to avoid being alone with Cook and right when she thought she could no longer avoid him, a “sheriff came from Georgia after Cook’s debts…and sold [the enslaved]”(pg. 45). At this last slave auction, she was bought by Williams who forced her to become his concubine. Though  Mattison’s questions controlled the narrative, Louis Picquet’s answers pushed the narrative to places where she could try to have her audience understand that she knew she’d “be committin’ adultery, and there’s no chance for [her], and [she’ll] have to die and be lost”(pg. 59). After William’s death, she redeem herself  by going to church on that first Sunday. Years later, she married a free man who was a “professor of religion”(pg. 64).

Mattison used the sentimental style to pull out information from Louisa Picquet and she fought against questions by giving shameful information of her master like,  “Oh, very often… He had two or three kinds of drunks. Sometimes he would…fight everything he come to. At other times he would be real funny”(pg. 46), when asked if her master ever beat her. Though her story overall created empathy for her, and she had found her self-respect after the death of Williams, she was not able to establish to her readers that the life circumstances of white Northern women are vastly different from the circumstances of black enslaved women and for this reason, enslaved black women should not be judged equally.


Harriet Jacobs decided to author her own story after Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a letter that “ violated a respectful silence that Jacobs and [Cornelia] Willis (Jacobs employer) had maintained on the subject of Jacob’s past”(Nudelman pg. 955).  Harriet Jacobs believed in “a standard for communication between black and white women which, far from being founded on complete…discloser of feeling, depends on…exercise of reserve”(pg. 956).   Unlike Louisa Picquet, Harriet Jacobs was able to control and strategically build her narrative. When Harriet Jacobs “entered on [her]fifteenth year… [her] master [Flint] began to whisper foul words into [her] ears”(Jacobs pg. 44) and once she was told by Flint that he was building a secluded house for her, she “made a headlong plunge”(pg. 86)  with Sands. Harriet Jacobs does not repeat the foul words said into her ears. She does not describe the reason for the house built by Flint. She does not describe the plunge she took. Still, Harriet Jacobs draws empathy from her audience by stating in different forms through out her narrative “it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history”(pg. 5). Harriet Jacobs calculated moves to avoid Flint, her choice to partner with Sands, repeated rejections of Flints help, and her ultimate choice of hiding in her grandmothers attic,  helped “ensure her respect was never violated again”(Rotbert pg. 3). The revealing of the circumstances without revealing any exact details created “the secrecy that is necessary for the slave’s self-liberation”(Nudelman pg. 959).

The radical move in Harriet Jacobs’s narrative is the use of contrast rhetoric to show “O virtuous reader! You never knew what is is to be a slave…You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares…you never shuddered at the sound of footsteps…trembled  within hearing his voice”(Jacobs pg. 86). This contrast establishes a line where the readers can come to understand that they can empathizes with enslaved black women but they do not have the right to judge them. Their life circumstances vastly differ that “only by experience can only one realize how deep and dark…”(pg. 6) slavery really is. By using contrast through out her narrative, Harriet Jacobs is able to tell her audience that though her “story ends with freedom; not in the usual way with marriage”(pg. 302) white Northern women should help free the “two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what [she] suffered” (pg. 6) and they Northern women should help  her “sisters in bondage” (pg. 8) without any judgement.

In conclusion, both Louisa Picquet and Harriet Jacobs were black females that dared to share their history in the name of freedom for their enslaved sisters. Both were able to leave slavery with a newly created sense of self-respect that showed through the pages of their narratives; Louisa Picquet’s choice of words for her answers to her amanuensis, and Harriet Jacobs choice to author her own story. In the end, it is Harriet Jacobs interchange of writing styles that created a strong narrative that not only gave her personal history in a discreet way but also taught her readers that the enslaved population cannot and should not be judged based on societal standards in which they are denied by the evils of slavery.


Works Cited

  1. Nudelman, Franny. “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering.” ELH, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Winter, 1992). The John Hopkins University Press. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873301>
  2. Mattison, Rev. H. “Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life.”Albany: SUNY P, 2010. Print.
  3. Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Boston. 1861. Print.
  4. Rotbert, Joshua. “Autobiographies of Freedom: Respect and Deception in Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.” 7 October. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/9684452/Autobiographies_of_Freedom_Respect_and_Deception_in_Frederick_Douglass_and_Harriet_Jacobs>