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  • The Spark of Kindness:The Rhetoric of Abolitionist Action in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Kasey J. Waite (bio)

Fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs vents, in her 1853 letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, her frustration with the inaction of American Christians against the institution of slavery. She writes: "Oh ye Christians, while your arms are extended to receive the oppressed of all nations, while you exert every power of your soul to assist them to raise funds, put weapons in their hands … while Americans do all this, they forget the millions of slaves they have at home, bought and sold under the very peculiar circumstance" (Jacobs Norton Critical 170). In this text, Jacobs describes the American Christians as physically embracing, emotionally laboring, monetarily supporting, and actively protecting unknown peoples in foreign countries, while the wretched American slaves do not benefit from the same charity. Focusing specifically on the tendency of American Christians to offer help to everyone except to slaves at home, Jacobs argues that slavery endures in America, not because the horrors of slavery are unknown (even by the North), but because these Christians refuse to act benevolently towards those enslaved around them.

Eight years later and now free, Jacobs continued her call for action in her self-published memoir of her anguish in slavery under the pseudonym of Linda Brent. In the preface, she writes that she wishes her narrative to "arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South" (3, emphasis mine). She also uses the paratext of her narrative as a call to action, including a verse from Isaiah: "Rise up, ye women that are at ease!" (Jacobs 1, emphasis mine). Just as in the letter, her language underscores her narrative's objective and her answer for defeating slavery: positive abolitionist agency from the white women in the North. However, in order to persuade her audience to take up her cause, Jacobs does not structure the narrative around classical notions of pity or nineteenthcentury discourses on sympathy as might be anticipated, but rather [End Page 163] on kindness, the only emotion that invokes real action. Furthermore, Jacobs displays throughout the narrative the limits of abolitionist action based on pity or sympathy and constructed solely on an ocular (real or imagined) identification with the slave; it can never provide the activist response that she desires. By writing her story, Jacobs offers up her own "imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted people" (3). Famously reluctant to publicize her own trauma, Jacobs models for her audience her version of true abolitionist practice, both in the construction of her own narrative and through the story she crafts within it: benevolent action undertaken via kindness.

While scholars have noted how Jacobs seemingly constructs her text to elicit sympathy/pity as well as how she seeks to subvert the necessity of these emotions, they continue to disagree on why Jacobs does so and whether she is effective in her attempts to elicit sympathy from her readers. Moreover, these arguments have overlooked the importance of kindness to Jacobs's text. I argue that Jacobs solicits pity and sympathy while she shows their limits, thus providing readers with examples to emulate that require neither emotion. By focusing on Jacobs's use and reliance on kindness, I suggest a third way of reading her narrative that does not fall into simple dichotomies. While it is true that Jacobs often describes the sympathy of white women characters and directly asks her readers to pity her throughout the narrative, she ultimately demonstrates their failings, offering kindness as a solution for fulfilling the purpose for her memoir that she establishes in her paratext and preface. Simply put, neither sympathy nor pity can drive white women readers to action; therefore, neither can be used as the basis of Jacobs's abolitionist rhetoric. To make this case, I will first examine how Jacobs refutes pity and sympathy as meaningful calls to action, before showing how she provides the readers a model for action through kindness.

Terms and usage

Even though in contemporary usage, sympathy, pity and, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 163-184
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-01
Open Access
No
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