Slaves, male and female, were subjected to similar hardships. Both searched for freedom and had dedication to help free others. The narratives of Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Frederick Douglass’, “In the Life of Frederick Douglass” portrayed two very different accounts. The narratives detail what living a slave’s life entailed. However, Jacobs’ emotional memories and obstacles of being a female slave make a stronger connection to the reader who is capable of feeling her emotions through the intense words she wrote.
Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, each with moving stories about their different experiences. Douglass was deprived of a childhood and had limited family contact throughout his life. At a young age, he was fully aware of being a slave suffering beatings and torture along with witnessing the abuse and death of slaves around him. Religion was used against him as justification for the abuse he received. Unlike Douglass, Jacobs grew up in a comfortable home surrounded by family and knew nothing about being a slave until the age of six, when her mother died.
At twelve years old, she was sold to a new master and began to realize the reality and hardships of slave life. Although she went through most of her life without enduring physical pain, she suffered intense mental torture. Family, especially her grandmother, instilled a deep faith of God and religion in her. How a slave was treated relied mostly on their gender. Douglass had been subjected to brutal beatings, long hours of physical labor and starvation. Jacobs’ life was similar in ways but opposite as well. Jacobs once expressed that, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women”.
A female slave experienced mental and sexual abuse by her master, which was a way to dehumanize them and lose all dignity. If a woman bore children, she had no way to protect them against the evils of slavery. They automatically follow the status of the mother, which meant being born into slavery. When Jacobs was fifteen she strongly resisted the repeated sexual advances from her master. To give herself some power and choice over her life, she chose to have a relationship with a white man, rather than having her innocence stolen. By becoming pregnant, her master no longer desired her.
Nevertheless, a new world of suffering and fear would begin by becoming the mother of slave children. Douglass and Jacobs had different motivations for seeking freedom. The knowledge and intelligence they possessed was a gift and a burden. Uneducated slaves did not know any better and were ignorant to the truths of the real world. Slaveholders believed that “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. ” Once Douglass knew freedom existed, his dream was to be free.
Were it not for his determination to learn to read and write, he might never have become a free man. Jacobs’ education allowed her to understand the world around her but was not her motivation for freedom. She was a girl, woman and mother trying to escape the constraints, mental anguish and sexual harassment a female slave experienced. She wanted a life without fear for herself and her children. Family became the driving force to one day be free. Freedom did not come as easy for Jacobs as it did for Douglass. In September of 1838, Douglass succeeded in reaching New York and becoming a free man.
He settled into a home with his wife and he became known as an influential speaker against slavery in American history. Jacobs’ road to freedom was much more difficult. After realizing that her children would be subjected to the cruelties of slavery, she decided to escape. Jacobs flees from her master and spends seven years living in a cramped attic praying that his search for her will end. The years of hiding wore her down physically and mentally. To minimize the risk of being found she would watch her children through a small peephole without their knowledge.
Finally, she escapes to the north only to find that she would spend more time fighting to be free. Her struggle ends when she‘s finally granted the freedom she has desired for so long. However, she still longs for a home of her own to share with her children. Both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were inspiring people who proved that they could obtain the education, skills and determination needed to free themselves from slavery. Jacobs’ narrative brought up sensitive issues such as gender, sexual exploitation and motherhood that gave the reader a strong personal connection to her as a human being.