Degree Year


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Sandra Zagarell


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl is a text which, written in a culture divided between polarities of race and gender, has continued in the 130 years of its reception to traverse a landscape of mutably yet continually divided racisms and sexisms, changeably yet continually cloven raced and gendered identities. The text itself, due to the legally and socially constructed polar ontologies of race and gender in 19th century America, is tom between what can be said and what can't, what is true and what is false, what is black and what is white. The "tears" manifest themselves on all levels, from the text's ambiguous manipulation of the slave narrative genre and of the conventions of sentimentality, down to paradoxical statements housed in a single sentence. Readings of Incidents have also been tom. From acceptance at "face value," that is, that Jacobs was the black fugitive slave she claimed to be, to readings which understood it as a fiction by a white woman, to its recent recovery and revalorization as an "authentic" slave narrative, the text has been read in radically contradictory ways. This paper will be an examination of how the rendings and renderings in the text, and the rendings and renderings of the text as it has been read, suggest in the midst of their divisions spaces between polarities which have the potential to reveal those polarities' construction. The text's many slippages between categorical understandings, in other words, suggest possible sites not of synthesis, but of ranges of understanding.

Antebellum American culture was, as contemporary American culture still is, built on dualistic understandings supported by law and language. "Race" has long been a cornerstone of this belief system for white Europeans and Americans, with "black" and "white" occupying opposite ends of the chain of being. Thus in 1862, Abraham Lincoln told a group of black leaders that "You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between any other two races." Never mind that these two "races," divided by the broadest distance Lincoln could imagine, mingled and mingled easily, mostly through the rape of slave women by slave owners, to the point where Jacobs could ask the question, "who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves?" As Jacobs elsewhere points out, "No matter whether the 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." In other words, it is the law which polarizes the understanding of race, not race which dictates the law. The words black and white, when applied to race, thus become not descriptions of actual appearance, but justifying metaphors for a system of legally sanctioned social tyranny. Categorical language, which supports and naturalizes social and legal constructions by eliding spectra of color and identity into polarized definitions of black/white, thus creates an official ontology of the visible and the understandable, which is an ontology of polarity. This ontology must, in order to preserve its absolute bifurcation, "assimilate and internalize [other permutations of 'race'] ... "to its own rigid polar logic," as Fuss says of sexuality. Words and definitions thus function both to buttress legal interdictions, in this case the antebellum laws surrounding race, and as interdictions themselves, prohibit in their polarity the visibility of spaces between and sanction the constant reconstruction of dichotomized understandings. Thus interdicted, the spaces between polarities are unsayable and invisible.