Reading between the Lines: The Black Cultural Tradition of Masking in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
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Reading between the Lines
The Black Cultural Tradition of Masking in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Narrative always says less than it knows, but it often makes known more than it says.

Among contemporary scholars of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, there exists a point of contention about a particular yet significant detail in Harriet Jacobs's narrative. Jacobs, alias Linda Brent, would have readers believe that she successfully dodged her slave master's persistent attempts of sexually assaulting her. Some theorists, albeit the minority, have found Brent's claim of her alleged escape from the sexual clutches of Dr. James Norcom, alias Dr. Flint, to be unbelievable. Given the narrative's long sojourn out of the realm of historical illegitimacy, one can appreciate a scholar's fear in questioning the truth of Brent's words.1 While many scholars enjoy discussions that explore the richness of Jacobs's rhetorical strategies and the accepted level of fictionalizing associated with any type of autobiographical endeavor, few have challenged Jacobs's authorial claims of candor, for the narrative has achieved an almost reverential place within the canon of black literature.

However, a speculative reading of Brent's being sexually assaulted by Flint is not only plausible but arguably more credible. At work in Jacobs's narrative repertoire is the black cultural tradition of "masking," a technique of double meaning that allows the storyteller to make accessible a hidden message only to those readers attuned to the secretive signs embedded within the story.2 "Masking" thus allows Jacobs to compose an acceptable explanation of events that will satisfy the majority of her immediate readers, white middle-class women in the North, while revealing the complete and actual experience to a select group of readers who can detect the cipher and appreciate Jacobs's impressive cunning given her desperate circumstances. Close scrutiny of the narrative reveals Jacobs to be a clever mediator of revealed and hidden information [End Page 73] who encourages her readers to read against the text. The latent details suggest that Flint did indeed sexually abuse Brent, leaving her with an added crisis of pregnancy.

Faced with the impending reality of the sale of her future child, Brent found a use for Mr. Sands. Brent had an affair with Sands, fully knowing that she was pregnant from Flint, and led Sands to believe that he was the actual father of the child. This intentional complicating of paternity served Brent's purposes perfectly, leaving Flint to willingly sell the child, thinking that the child was his, and Sands anxious to buy the child, thinking that the boy was his. Jacobs's oblique and duplicitous narrative style offers information that points to this truth. Brent's actual dealings with Flint and Sands would have overwhelmed white female readers' understanding of what it meant to be a victim of slavery. The abolitionist cause did not need a spokeswoman whose actions may have prompted a public sense of moral outrage. However, for the audience that proved ready for the hard truth of Brent's circumstances and sensed the cues of her "double voice" and the reality of her sexual past, she loomed even larger as the embodiment of resourcefulness, intelligence, and rhetorical guile.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, one scholar who remains skeptical of Brent's ability to avoid the sexual threat of Dr. Flint, contemplates Jacobs's construction of Brent's subjectivity and states:

If specific details such as the duration of her hiding, the size of her hiding space, and the letters from her master are altogether improbable, their very improbability serve as reminders that Jacobs's book should be read as a crafted representation—as a fiction or as a cautionary tale—not as a factual account. Its purpose, after all, was to authenticate her self, not this or that detail. And even that pivotal authentication of self probably rested upon a great factual lie, for it stretches the limits of all credulity that Linda Brent actually eluded her master's sexual advances.3

Fox-Genovese is careful to emphasize that altered details and facts do not detract from the essential truth...