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Modern Voices
Margaret Washington on Harriet Jacobs
Resource Bank Contents

Q: How does Harriet Jacobs resist being sexually harassed and stalked by Dr. Flint?
Margaret Washington

A: One has to imagine what it was like for a young woman like this, living in an enslaved situation, no protector, and being pursued by the man who had absolute authority over her.

What is amazing is, she takes the position of asserting herself. And rather than give in to this master, she decides that she's going to make a choice that if she has to be in a situation where she's going to be either raped or take up with a man, then she's going to choose the man. So she chooses a young, handsome, white lawyer, and has a relationship with him, which angers her master. In the process of this relationship, she has two children with this man.

One could probably condemn Harriet Jacobs for that, because many enslaved women were actually raped -- fought off white men; and yet here she is in a situation where she gives herself to one. Jacobs says later on, as she's trying to explain in her book to especially women in America, why she would do that: that there is something akin to power by taking your own life in your hands and making a decision of who it is that you want to be with. And Mr. Sands, the lawyer, was very nice to her. He comforted her when Dr. Flint was pursuing her. So, as she says in her narrative, tender feelings developed about him. So she has these two children with him, and this angers her master, and she's forced to go into hiding.

Jacobs considers herself a moral woman. And she was raised by her grandmother to be moral and to be virtuous. And this is a period in American history when gender conventions are considered to be purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness. A virtuous and a moral woman had to have those kinds of attitudes, and they had to have that kind of bearing. Of course, they had to be middle class. And this was a middle class concept. And it was also embedded in this concept of being a Christian.

And Jacobs was a Christian, and she felt that she had done something that was sinful, on the one hand. On the other hand, she felt that she had no choice, that she was driven to it. She was so guilt-ridden that she didn't even want to tell her grandmother. And when her grandmother did find out she was pregnant, they had a horrible scene. And she finally was able to convince her grandmother, through the intercession of another black woman, that this was not her fault. And that gave her some sense of relief, that the woman who she loved most of all in the world understood her plight. The bonding that black women had about their situation, a situation that they couldn't control. So that part of her sense of guilt was absolved.

But then, as she later moved north and began to write her story and knew that people (especially women) were going to condemn her for taking up with Mr. Sands, then that guilt began to come back. And for her, it must have been a situation of, as she said at her writing table: How can I explain this to people? How can I get people to understand that enslaved women cannot be blamed for this, and that we are and want to be virtuous, and we want to be moral, and we want to make choices about whom we live with, and we want to live in monogamous relationships. But we are property, and we have no control over that. That does not mean that we are not Christian. That does not mean that we do not have a moral sense. What it does mean is that we are not allowed to have control over our own morality and over our own womanhood and over our own sexuality.

So we have to understand the situation for black women, looking at Jacobs as an example: the stalking of black women by masters, by overseers, sometimes by whites who actually came to visit the master. And her reaction, leaving, was in some ways extreme, because most black women did not leave. Jacobs in some situation was in a more privileged position than most African American enslaved women. She was a house servant. She was racially mixed. She lived in North Carolina, as opposed to the Deep South. But her experience and why she wanted to tell it, was something that was an example of what many African American enslaved women went through at that time: being stalked, being raped.

Some of them actually resisted in other ways. Her way of resisting was to flee and live in a garret. Other women used clubs to keep men away from them. Some women resisted by living in the woods, sometimes taking their children with them. And the women in the Louisiana cane fields, the enslaved women, used to sing a song as they worked, that gives us a sense of how they felt about being pursued by white men:

Rain, come wet me. Sun, come dry me.
Stand back, boss man. Don't come nigh me.

So women tried to resist, and they paid a heavy price for this. Women who resisted masters were sometimes stripped naked and whipped. They were sold away from their children. They were brutalized. So you paid a heavy price for that. And many women decided that there was no use.

Margaret Washington
Associate Professor of History
Cornell Universiy

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