Dr Donna Vittorio
TA: Sheetal Lodhia
Racial Issues in “The Runaway Slave” and Life of a Slave Girl
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
-- Shylock, The
Like Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the black slave women are dehumanized by the other characters in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and Harriet A. Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Sexually harassed by their white masters, these slave women are forbidden to express the human emotion of love. Pressured into a shamed motherhood, they cannot love their children in the same ways that a white mother can. Moreover, slave women are treated like chattels. The black women in Browning and Jacobs’ works are oppressed sexually, forced into unwanted motherhoods, and stripped of their identities. Yet, because they face these cruelties with courage and dignity, these black slaves emerge as heroines of their own fates.
According to her white owners, a black woman in bondage not only has no rights to love, but is incapable of loving. In Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, the black narrator speaks of her love affair with a black man, but she is brief in its description because it is a forbidden act. The narrator remains anonymous throughout Browning’s poem, for to be named is to have power and to have an identity. She sings her lover’s name, showing that enslavement cannot prevent her from loving or from giving a fellow slave an identity. The narrator and her lover meet in secret, but their furtiveness is seen in a positive light since their commitment to love one another is strengthened by their piety: “We were two to love and two to pray” (86). Although they try to have faith in God, they are alienated from Him who sits “coldly… behind the sun” (89). God, in the slaves’ world, is their white master. When the omnipresent master discovers the slaves’ love affair, he is swift to put an end to their romantic and sexual freedom: the black male is dragged along the ground and murdered so that the master can reclaim the narrator as his sex slave. As the narrator states: “We were black, we were black,/We had no claim to love and bliss” (92-93). For a short while, however, the narrator is able to slip out from her bondage to discover the world of love.
In Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, the black narrator Linda Brent, like the narrator in “The Runaway Slave”, has no rights to love. If she tries to taste this forbidden fruit, it will be snatched away from her by her white master, Dr Flint: “Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?” (37). This sexual and romantic oppression of black women is a game of power in which the odds are against the black woman. Linda does not strive to marry above her rank as a slave, but Dr Flint will not allow her to marry another black slave because in his view, slaves are animals that have no rights to feel marital bliss. Moreover, Dr Flint wants Linda for himself. Instead of becoming Dr Flint’s unwilling sex slave, Linda willingly offers herself to another white man, because it “seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment” (55). Although Linda is no longer chaste, she continues to be seen as a virtuous woman because she is simply playing the power game that Dr Flint has set in motion.
In “The Runaway Slave”, the narrator suffers not only from sexual oppression, but also from sexual exploitation. After killing her lover, the white master will not let the narrator “weep pure tears and die” but forces her to lose her purity to him (105). This type of sexual degradation frequently occurs in Life of a Slave Girl. A black man is nearly whipped to death because he voices his anger over his wife’s half-white child. In this situation, the black woman is sexually exploited, but the black man is also degraded because his feelings are ignored and his protests result in punishment. Linda Brent’s master has fathered eleven slaves, but the mothers of these children dare not expose their grief for fear of retribution. Linda, unlike the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” and unlike the other female slaves in Life of a Slave Girl, is active in eluding the sexual advances of Dr Flint. She leaves her master’s house and condemns the double standards that black slaves are subjected to: Why are the black women marked impure when it is the white masters that make them so?
Because of this double standard, these female slaves must give birth to their white masters’ babies even though their owners detest the “Black race”. In “The Runaway Slave”, the narrator is disgusted by her baby who is “far too white, too white for [her]” (116). Although she loves her son, she cannot bear to look in his face because he is a reminder of her shame, her impurity, and her powerlessness. Comparing her child to an “amulet that hung too slack”, the narrator feels that her white child is akin to a dead weight that drags her down and offers her no comfort (54). The narrator laments that unlike the white mothers, she cannot sing to her child the songs that she loves. This is because she plans to murder him soon and therefore cannot grow fond of him. Linda regards her situation differently. She feels that she has made the right choice in having two children, Benny and Ellen, by a white man: “Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon” (55). Nevertheless, Benny and Ellen do not wholly belong to her because a slave, “being property, can hold no property” (6). While the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” wants to moan the fate of herself and of her child “until all ended for the best” (112), Linda aspires to become a free woman so that she can also set her children free from slavery. She triumphs as a slave when Dr Flint is tricked into selling Linda’s children Benny and Ellen to their rightful father.
Holding no grievances over her half-white children, Linda would nevertheless rather see Benny and Ellen killed than giving them up to Dr Flint. This act of desperation is comprehensible to a slave mother, because no life is better than a life of slavery. In “The Runaway Slave”, the narrator murders her son because he is the reminder of her degradation. Her son’s face has “the master’s look, that used to fall/On [her] soul like his lash…or worse!” (144-145). It shatters this mother’s heart to smother her child as he struggles for freedom, but, like Linda, she is cynical about her son’s future if he is left in the hands of his white father. Unlike Linda, this narrator does not dream of running away from slavery with her son, because she thinks that since her son is half-white, his soul has already been sucked away. Meanwhile, Linda risks her life by sneaking out of her hiding place in her grandmother’s shed to obtain a promise from her children’s father to emancipate the children. This selfless act reflects the courage of this slave mother.
Other slave mothers in Life of a Slave Girl are passive like the narrator in “The Runaway Slave”. A black girl dies after giving birth to a white child. Before dying, she says, “The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven, too” (13). It is a relief to this slave girl that her child will not suffer the same fate. As Linda notes, the slave mother “may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies” (16). Since half-white children follow the condition of the mother, a child will be killed or sent away if a white woman and a black man have a child; however, “if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market” (52). Thus, black women are “considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on a par with animals” (49). In “The Runaway Slave”, the narrator is at peace when her child dies and returns to the dark soil, purifying him of his whiteness: “Thus we two were reconciled,/The white child and black mother” (190-191). Therefore, like the slave mothers in Life of a Slave Girl, the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” rebel against white rule by killing her half-white son and mocking the child’s father: “We are too heavy for our cross,/And fall and crush you and your seed” (244-245). Thus, when a slave mother kills her half-white child, she is also killing the child of a white person. Through this, the black slave obtains power.
Treated as white men’s properties, black slaves are subjected to harsh physical abuse. In “The Runaway Slave”, the narrator is flogged, whipped, and cursed by her master. She bemoans the slaves’ “countless wounds that pay no debt” (238). Unlike Jesus Christ, the black slaves have no sins to redeem and therefore their sufferings do not seem especially noble. Nevertheless, the narrator bears her pain silently in her own noble way. In Life of a Slave Girls, Linda relates the cruel punishments in greater detail. Mrs Flint can watch a slave woman whipped “till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash” (12) and Dr Flint will cram food down the cook’s throat when the meals are not to his liking. If a slave resists being whipped, the “bloodhounds [are] unpacked, and set upon him, to tear his flesh from his bones” (49). Slaves who try to escape suffer crueller fates. James, an escapee who is recaptured, is beaten and placed between the screws of a cotton gin until rats devour him. Unlike the narrator in “The Runaway Slave”, Linda is rarely beaten because Dr Flint lusts after her body. Nonetheless, when Linda vocally defends her rights as a human being, she suffers several physical blows from her master.
brutalities suffered by black slaves are dehumanizing, and this is a shock to
Linda who, as a young girl, “never dreamed [she] was a piece of merchandise”
(5). The loss of identity strips the black slaves of their humanity and self
esteem. As the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” notes, she feels that the white
people are surrounding her and hunting her like a wild beast. The white people
kill “the black eagle at nest” (208); thus, they kill freedom and the nursing
slave mother. In Life of a Slave Girl,
the white masters also kill the idea of freedom by lying to their slaves about
the quality of life in the
It seems that everywhere a female slave turns to, she is treated as an inconsequential object – even in the face of God. As the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” remarks, if God did indeed create black women like herself, “He must have cast his work away/Under the feet of his white creatures” (25-26). God has given no stars to guide the black slaves, and the white angels will only save the souls of white children. Perhaps this is only a cruel jest of God, but the narrator triumphs over her sorrows and promises: “White men, I leave you all curse-free/In my broken heart’s disdain!” (252-253). Linda, too, forgives her mistress who breaks her promise of setting Linda free. Linda’s mistress had preached to her the Words of God – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” – but Linda was her slave, and so she probably did not recognize Linda as her neighbour, but as a chattel (8). Linda also notes that her cruel master, Dr Flint, “boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower” (49). God seems to have forsaken these female slaves, but with generous hearts, they forgive those who have robbed them of an identity, thus emerging true heroines of their lives.
Being true heroines of their lives, the narrator in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and Linda in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself both sidestep their masters’ ban on love, if only for a brief period of time. Although white men impregnate them, these black slaves are able to derail their masters’ plans of enslaving their children. Furthermore, they are able to find forgiveness in their hearts even though they have been stripped of their humanity. Like the alienated Shylock in Shakespeare’s play, Linda and the narrator in “The Runaway Slave” will bleed if they are pricked. Indeed, these slave women have bled, both physically and emotionally. These wounds can only heal when they begin to stand up for their rights as human beings, so that eventually they will “cease to be trampled under foot by [their] oppressors” (Jacobs, 177).
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”. 1850.
Correspondence Course Notes: ENGL 205*S Selected Women Writers I, Spring-
Summer 2003, pp. 51-58. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University, 2003.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. London:
Harvard University Press, 1987.