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  • Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Stephanie Li

Claudia Tate has observed that for female slaves "motherhood was an institution to which they had only biological claim" (108). Enslaved women and their children could be separated at any time, and even if they belonged to the same owner, strict labor policies and plantation regulations severely limited the development of their relationships. Hortense J. Spillers concludes that because of this fundamental maternal outrage, and the concomitant banishment of the black father, "only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed. This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender" (80). George Cunningham further argues, "Within the domain of slavery, gender or culturally derived notions of man- and womanhood do not exist" (117). The predetermined violence of slavery disrupts conventional meanings attached to words such as "mother" and "womanhood." What is motherhood for a woman deprived of the ability to care for and protect her child? How are we to conceptualize maternal identity under conditions of enslavement? Furthermore, because procreation by bondwomen can be regarded as both a means of perpetuating slavery and an act of love and self-sacrifice, the sexuality of enslaved women and their relationship to their offspring must be understood as a complex negotiation involving individual agency, resistance, and power. Due to slavery's basic destabilization of blood relations, the black female subject demands new terms of radical self-determination. Spillers thus reminds her readers, "It is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject" (80).

It is precisely through her flesh as both mother and slave woman that Harriet A. Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) claims the insurgent ground of her social identity and formulates her resistance to human bondage. By emphasizing her narrator's maternal sentiments, Jacobs resists prevailing beliefs concerning black women's indifference to their children while also establishing an important association between her protagonist Linda Brent and domestic ideologies.1 Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe and other nineteenth-century writers of sentimental fiction, Jacobs describes "nurture as a quintessence of the maternal that crosses race and class boundaries" (Stephanie Smith 215). Relying upon an understanding of maternity as a form of innate [End Page 14] attachment, Jacobs presents Linda's actions as largely determined by the effect they will have on her children and their eventual emancipation. Many female slaves were unable to keep their families together, yet by emphasizing the oppositional action inspired by maternal sentiment Jacobs presents motherhood as a force that resists slavery and its supporters. By fashioning a literary persona who is defined almost exclusively by her maternal identity, Jacobs rejects the materialist logic of human ownership. Maternal love is shown to offer a model of relations that opposes the economy of exchange and possession characterizing the antebellum system of human bondage. Converting her body and reproductive abilities from sites of exploitation to vehicles of resistance, Linda undermines the authority of the slave master and works to liberate her children.

Works by Carla Peterson, Valerie Smith, and Claudia Tate have focused upon Jacobs's departure from the assumptions and expectations of the male slave narrative to articulate the experiences and concerns of bondwomen. By contrast, I explore forms of female bodily resistance as well as ideological strategies of literary representation. Rather than conflate Jacobs with the text's protagonist, as many previous critics have done, I analyze Linda as a literary figure deliberately constructed to perform certain political aims.2 As the embodiment of maternal love, she acts almost exclusively to improve the lives of her children. Although Linda strains credibility as a result of her overriding maternal sensibility, Jacobs's reliance upon the trope of motherhood capitalizes on the political import of prevailing beliefs in the sanctity and power of the mother and suggests that a woman's sexuality offers a vital means of resistance against patriarchal oppression. For Jacobs, motherhood is not simply a politically...


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pp. 14-29
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