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Reconstructing the Black Woman

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Essay title: Reconstructing the Black Woman

Harriet Jacobs, as a black female slave, was able to successfully narrate her life story with earnest honesty while documenting the honorable and the shameful events from her past. Free black women from her time period had also published autobiographies about their own personal struggles as black women remaining virtuous, and maintaining a true Christian womanhood through the social adversities they faced daily. However, Jacobs chose to take a more honorable route by confessing all her sins, justifying her sins, and explaining how the present society provided her with no other options. Jacobs’ states, “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery…”( Gates 290). Jacobs tried to keep herself pure, however the circumstances of slavery would not allow her to maintain virtue nor self-respect. Harriet Jacobs definition of self-respect and slavery arises from her respectably known grandmother. Aunt Marthy, Jacobs’ grandmother, undoubtedly followed and taught Jacobs’ the four principles of a virtuous woman. Due to the institute of slavery, Harriet Jacobs was forced to redefine the four principles of a virtuous woman while still preserving virtue.

The four principles of a virtuous woman are purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. These four principles are often referred to as the “the cult of true womanhood” because the four principles are only realistically applied to white women specifically in the South. The virtue of black women during slavery was stolen, disregarded, and manipulated. This is the result of the “peculiar institute” of slavery in regards to the relationship between the white master and the black female slave. The four principles of a virtuous woman were formed to define womanhood, to compliment the male role, and to constrict women’s freedom to dependency on the complimentary male function (Carby 3-20).

Hazel V. Carby states in Reconstruction of Womanhood , “Black women had to confront the dominant ideologies and literary conventions of womanhood which excluded them from the definition “woman” (Carby 6). Slaves were classified as less than human, thus females slaves undoubtedly did not receive the title of “true woman”. There were of a less order in comparison to white women. Hence once again the four principles of a virtuous woman are those only realistically able to be practiced by white woman. Slavery did not allow for the black woman to practice these principles. Jacobs explains,“ the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible”( Gates 291).

Purity and piety were necessity that spoke for a woman’s femininity and absolute virtue. Domesticity was esteemed as the “purpose of a woman’s being”. The primarily purpose of a woman was wifehood and motherhood; sexual instinct and self gratification were nonexistent in the thought process of a virtuous woman. Submissiveness was to be fragile, delicate, and physically weak in order to compliment the typical male function. Harriet Jacobs undeniably did not suit the typical role of virtuous woman because of her determination not to submit and domesticate with Dr. Flint; who was the social adversity that forced her to redefine herself as a woman.

The birth of Jacob’s son out of wedlock was the first severance from the idealistic vision of womanhood, particularly purity. Jacobs’ explains, “ When my master said he was going to build a house for me …I vowed to Maker that I would never enter it. I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark”. Jacobs’ continues to say,“ I was determined that the master, whom I so hated and loathed, who had blighted the prospects of my youth, and made my life a desert, should not, after my long struggle with him, succeed at trampling his victim under his feet. The purpose of Dr. Flint building Jacobs’ a house was to be able to sexually control her. Dr. Flint attempted to put Jacobs’ out of physical reach of people, especially his wife. Jacobs’ was distraught over the fact that Dr. Flint “blighted the prospects of (her) youth”. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl this is the point where Jacobs’ realizes she has to abandon the virtuous ways she has maintained since her youth in order to survive the institute of Slavery, and keep herself from been a victim. According to Jacob’s, her life is now a “desert” because she is no longer a symbol of ideals and principles instilled to her by her grandmother. The result of the loss of ideals, purity, was Jacob’s rendezvous with Mr. Sands and consequently her two pregnancies (Gates 290).

Jacobs’ refused to sexually submit herself to Dr. Flint’s, but proceeds to sexually submit herself to another man;

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