From Silence to Story


This week, we began reading Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl (1861). 

When thinking about the sort of highly particular autobiographical writing that Harriet’s text reflects, an important thing to recall is that the so-called slave narratives, part of a larger family of captivity literature, appealed and relied on on certain important reader expectations. Particularly, the willingness of the reader to identify with the ideals and values of the protagonist and—in contrast—to reject as barbaric and undesirable the ideals and values of the captors. This was the ‘formula’ that underlies the captivity literature of C16-C18 European tradition  and that brought great success and popularity to this literary form. C19 US Slave literature, of course, turns this formula on its head, and the American readers were faced with the uncomfortable position of identifying with a protagonist whose dignity is undermined by the society to which almost all of those readers belonged.

That is, there is a rhetorical, stylistic device at the heart of such writing that has a very specific purpose:  it moves the reader towards a sense of identification in which what is paramount is the shared sense of humanity. But wait!! If you start attributing humanity to a slave, you’re in trouble: once you’ve accorded the status of human to such a person, the entire edifice of slavery comes crashing down. In fact, it’s only possible to sustain such a barbarous attitude if you can somehow convince yourself that these poor individuals miraculously belong to another level of existence. They don’t. They never did. They never will. They are, as the image above shows, our brothers and sisters (even today, ladies and gentlemen, even today…).  Recall that they are as fully human as you and me, and that’s the end of the story. Slavery cannot be justified. Game over.   

The simple yet overwhelmingly powerful key to all is the power of language. Why? Not simply because the slave narrators can tell their story and are given a voice to compensate for the silence that was traditionally imposed on them. Not simply because, in telling this tale, Jacobs can contribute directly and very eloquently to the great debate on the abolition of slavery, though this is of enormous value to the slaves. But, above all, because by telling this tale, Jacobs is enabled to restore the human dignity to herself and her people that slavery has intentionally taken every opportunity to destroy. Her journey from Silence to Story is the journey back to dignity from inhumanity. For all of us, this is the deeper value of Harriet Ann Jacob’s extraordinary work