Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a remarkable work of one of the few (only?) genres of literature original to North America: the autobiographical slave narrative. It is a work of moral witness, for Jacobs’ contemporaries and for posterity, and its value as moral witness is inseparable from its very wording, which can be felt in an exemplary passage [Linda was Harriet Jacobs’ pseudonym]:
…Dr Flint continued his visits, to look after my health; and he did not fail to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.
I felt too feeble to dispute with him, and listened to his remarks in silence. His visits were less frequent; but his busy spirit could not remain quiet. He employed my brother in his office; and he was made the medium of frequent notes and messages to me. William was a bright lad, and of much use to the doctor. He had learned to put up medicines, to leech, cup, and bleed. He had taught himself to read and spell. I was proud of my brother, and the old doctor suspected as much. One day, when I had not seen him for several weeks, I heard his steps approaching the door. I dreaded the encounter, and hid myself. He inquired for me, of course; but I was nowhere to be found. He went to his office, and dispatched William with a note. The color mounted to my brother’s face when he gave it to me; and he said, “Don’t you hate me, Linda, for bringing you these things?” I told him I could not blame him; he was a slave, and obliged to obey his master’s will. The note ordered me to come to his office. I went. He demanded to know where I was when he called. I told him I was at home. He flew into a passion, and said he knew better. Then he launched out upon his usual themes,–my crimes against him, and my ingratitude for his forbearance. The laws were laid down to me anew, and I was dismissed. I felt humiliated that my brother should stand by, and listen to such language as would be addressed only to a slave. Poor boy! He was powerless to defend me; but I saw the tears, which he vainly strove to keep back. The manifestation of feeling irritated the doctor. William could do nothing to please him. One morning he did not arrive at the office so early as usual; and that circumstance afforded his master an opportunity to vent his spleen. He was put in jail. The next day my brother sent a trader to the doctor, with a request to be sold. His master was greatly incensed at what he called his insolence. He said he had put him there, to reflect upon his bad conduct, and he certainly was not giving any evidence of repentance. For two days he harassed himself to find somebody to do his office work; but every thing went wrong without William. He was released, and ordered to take his old stand, with many threats, if he was not careful about his future behavior.
“To look after my health” need be stated both for what it does not say (that other visits, at other times were for quite other reasons) and for what it implies (why her health concerns him, how her health is the health of one of his “stock”); the sham duty of looking after her health is picked up in the phrase of duty, “he did not fail to remind me,” this being the chief duty of the slaveowner, to assert control, psychological and physical, over slaves. “Did not fail to remind me” suggest the reminder was verbal, explicit, brutally direct; but it leaves open that, as with much else in Jacobs’ experience, the reminder was non-verbal, tacit, and brutally indirect. “An addition to” does not just count among, but counts, greedily; “stock of slaves” is the clinching phrase, with chattel and cattle in its wake.
But it’s the next paragraph that begins with something of a surprise: “I felt too feeble to dispute with him.” The surprise is not that she would dispute—knowing her character, we know she might—but that she would dispute, with a slaveowner, this matter, which is nothing other than the basic principle of slavery. “Too feeble” but fully capable; the phrasing suggests the readiness of argument, given the energy of body and mind, and testifies also to her power to dispute and attack.
She listens in silence; Flint’s busy spirit cannot “remain quiet.” Whereas “dispute” grants her agency and power, and “listened to his remarks in silence” is an act of choice, in “his busy spirit could not remain quiet,” he moves involuntarily; he is at the mercy of his busy spirit. Throughout the passage, and throughout the narrative, Flint, for all of the power over others that he holds, is given to outbursts of passion and threat that come to little; even when slaveholders in the narrative commit the most horrendous acts of violence, Jacobs suggests, without explicitly saying as much, that the acts are desperate (see later in this passage, “he flew into a passion…His master was greatly incensed…), repeated attempts at control that cannot be won; their willing, and their willpower, is fragile and compromised—feeble—whereas Jacobs’ own, and that of her family members, is not (though she recognizes that it might be broken).
The passage as a whole is, I think, a way of carrying on the dispute against the doctor that she was too feeble to articulate at the time; that makes sense of why she moves from the unstated “dispute” at its start to her brother’s career. What line might have Harriet’s dispute with Flint taken? Any number; that no true possession of her children could be had by him, for instance. But it might also have taken up the implication of “stock of slave,” suggesting as it does not only property in cattle, but also the properties of cattle: slaves as docile and brutish. The story she will tell about her brother William challenges all of the points, and shows the Doctor’s own willpower and cunning to be less than that of her brother, who has succeeded in making himself indispensable to Flint’s practice. The equivocal word “employed” comes early: William cannot be employed as an employee; being a slave, he is “employed in his office” as an instrument or tool might be. But by the close of the passage he has forced the doctor to recognize him as more than that.
More importantly to Jacobs’ narrative design, the dispute opened in the passage concerns the feelings of humiliation and shame, inseparable as they are to self-worth. Throughout Jacobs’ narrative, slaveowners are, at the same time, intent on degrading and humiliating slaves, and seeking out expression of degradation and humiliation, and also intent on refusing to recognize slaves’ capacity for degradation and humiliation, since to do so would be to recognize a sense of self and source of dignity. Jacobs wants to suggest both that degradations and humiliations are deeply felt and also that they are ultimately futile, in so far as a sense of self and dignity are not emptied out; it is an aim of her narrative as a whole, but we can see both at work here. The doctor, knowing Harriet to be proud of her brother, has chosen her brother as an object of attack.
Flint has decided to use William as if he were an inert “medium.” That word is profoundly inadequate to William’s role as messenger of the notes that the doctor sends to Harriet. We are soon told that William could read and spell, and so the notes and letters sent by Flint to Harriet might very well have been read by him (though it would have probably been a risk to him to do so). She has explained their sexual, coercive, sometimes threatening, often lurid intent and content, and she would probably that he did not read them. William, though, disrupts any such fantasy, if she holds it: “Don’t you hate me, Linda, for bringing you these things?” “These things” holds at arm’s length, and in so not-stating, admits full knowledge of what is written. “The color mounted to my brother’s face” leaves open the possibility of blushing in embarrassment and shame, and also anger.
It is in Jacobs’ power to say to William that “he was a slave and obliged to obey his master’s will,” and so to free him from blame. That might only serve, as she knows well, to exacerbate his humiliation. In a passage elsewhere, Jacobs reflects that slavery confuses morality in principle and makes it impossible in practice; it would be wrong to read her words as denying slaves moral capacity and better to read it as a gloss on Kantian ethics: treating people merely as means is immoral because it strips them of their moral agency, their capacity to set their own ends (in self-conscious action). The humiliation William feels here, and elsewhere in the passage, is possible because he lacks full moral agency, but possesses a full awareness of what he lacks, and of what he cannot do. Being relieved of blame is, in such circumstances, a reminder of a humiliated condition.
Jacobs would not, of course, have intended to humiliate William, but the entire passage apprehends and registers the humiliation of his experiences. Soon after, William stands by as Flint confronts Harriet after she has hidden from him: “I felt humiliated that my brother should stand by, and listen to such language as would be addressed only to a slave.” Her humiliation, crucially, is neither primarily at the language itself, nor even at her brother’s seeing her addressed in such language: it is that he “should stand by.” Taken without context, “should stand by” might seem an accusation: she is humiliated at his failure to act. But that, of course, is not what she means, and she intends to show, more subtly than before, how moral responsibility is confounded in slavery. “Poor boy! He was powerless to defend me.” The humiliation owes instead to sympathy: her humiliation in the presence of, and witnessing, but also feeling with, his own humiliation. Such was Flint’s goal: humiliating William by removing from him the possibility of moral action, and humiliating Harriet in turn. In contrast to the tears (as equivocal and vague an expression as the color rising to face; tears of rage, sadness, despair all possible), and in response to them, the doctor is “irritated.” His petty feeling a demonstration of callous indifference, but also, in a narrative where “superabundant heart” is prized and praised, a limitation: he is capable of no sympathy and his irritation sets off the strength of self that is capable of experiencing humiliation, directly and in sympathy, and overcoming it. Such is the goal of the narrative as a whole.
How expected it would have been to bring the episode to a close with a close of the paragraph. But it proceeds, without clear demarcation, to a general observation, and another incident, hinging on the phrase “William could do nothing to please him.” In light of what has transpired, it is a shocking statement: as if it were for William to please Flint even in his manifestation of feelings. But it serves as a statement also on the continuity between pleasing Flint in this, his way of feeling, and in any other matter: Flint demands to be pleased by his servants (and “pleased” differently by Harriet), without distinguishing circumstances or occasion. He is, as Jacobs writes elsewhere, an “epicure.”
The question is why Jacobs lets the incident of humiliation yield to this other scene, of her brother’s lateness provoking Flint to jail him; of her brother’s request to be sold (playing, with bold defiance and sure-handedness at the market in which his life is commodity); and then of the doctor’s finding that “every thing went wrong without William” after two days. An answer I think lies in the dispute that is being played out: a dispute that is waged in acts of humiliation. By insisting on the continuity between incidents, Jacobs refuses to let her brother’s humiliation stand as a breaking-point, in his life or her narrative; she registers its intensity but does not cede the struggle: the humiliation does not break William, and his act of courage and genuine resistance, misjudged as “insolence,” is an affirmation of his depth of strength. In the phrase “ordered to take his old stand,” we can hear an echo of “stand by,” with a suggestion both that he will be asked to stand by powerless again, but also with a redemptive sense of “taking a stand,” and with the word “stand” temporarily released from passivity into defiance.