Between the rock and the hard place: mediating spaces in Harriet Jacob's 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.'.
Jacobs's text, presented under her pseudonym, Linda Brent, reflects an unwavering ability to locate, as crisis approaches, viable mediating spaces between the tensions that threaten her well-being. While these spaces are inevitably flawed and often grossly inadequate, they serve the immediate purpose of providing critical nurturing, of protecting "Brent" and her children from present danger, of allowing her to function in relative mental health while imprisoned in a culture that constantly threatens her sanity.
With some reference to her psychological state in each case, this essay considers three examples of Linda Brent's creative constructions. The first concerns her continuing ability to retain a mother figure after the death of her biological mother; the second, the negotiation of her own sexual prerogatives - her compromise between enforced immorality and a personal code of virtue; and, finally, her mediation between other distinct poles of being and not being - especially between slavery and freedom - as manifested by her circumstances and her actions during the seven-year interval in her grandmother's garret. This final episode, signifying a painful yet healing period, finally allows her to carve out a space larger than that taut, narrow chasm into which she was born - a realm that contains possibility.
In contrast to the commonly separated slave family, Brent's was "unusually fortunate" (343) because during her early childhood her nuclear family lived intact on one plantation. As John Blassingame has noted, the youthful illusion of early freedom "obscured the young slave's vision of bondage," creating a tremendous upheaval in the psyche once the slave comprehended her status (96). The trauma of Brent's awareness of her slave status is compounded by a critical concurrent event, the death of her mother: "When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave" (343). The juxtaposition of these two major events affects Brent's psychic development in critical ways.
The mother, according to Sigmund Freud, is "unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime as the first and strongest love-object and as the prototype of all later love relations" (Outline 45). Nancy Chodorow particularizes the maternal role toward the daughter, suggesting that a gender bond solidifies the daughter's early relationship with her mother, so that "women develop a sense of self continuous with others" (223-24). Brent's proud image of her mother, whom she remembers as "a slave merely in name, but in nature noble and womanly" (343), persists throughout the narrative. The abrupt end of Brent's mother's care, so fundamental to the child's psychic development, cuts off her construction, from her mother's example, of the psychic tools that she is in the process of amassing in these crucial, formative years in order to counsel and protect herself against her external world. In perhaps instinctive awareness of this incomplete internalization process, Brent embarks upon a continuous search for an external maternal figure (Kohut 49). Brent's first attempt at mediation, while still a young child, is a viable compromise between her forlorn state of motherlessness and the succor of maternal care - a mediating object to help buffer her against the raging storm of institutional slavery. What maternal nurturing Brent subsequently receives, however, inevitably prefigures the mothering that she later gives: fragmented and inadequate.
Two surrogate mothers are connected to Brent by blood; another, the white mistress of the plantation, is linked to Brent by what Hortense Spillers refers to in her masterful essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" as "the 'threads cable-strong' of an incestuous, interracial genealogy" (77). Spillers's exposition of the psychoanalytic dimension attached to institutional slavery informs the complex and profoundly contradictory impulses in relationships between slave and slave owner, and makes it possible to understand the young Brent's attachment to her "kindly" mistress. Brent notes that this mistress was "the foster sister of my mother," as they were "both nourished at my grandmother's breast," an image that clearly promotes the idea of a familial bond. Brent's almost parenthetical notation that her own mother was weaned at three months so that "the [white] babe might obtain sufficient food" deeply ironizes, but fails to subvert, the nostalgic tone of this section of the narrative.
After her mother's death, Brent is advised that her "home was now to be with [her] mistress," signaling that even her physical location situates her as the child more of the mistress than of her own father, and produces a scene that would only strengthen the notion that she is, in fact, the mistress's child: "My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free from care as that of any free-born white child." The affectionate mistress even teaches young Brent to read and write. "I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me" (343; emphasis mine). Despite an unhappy unfolding (Brent is surprised and disappointed by her mistress's failure, upon her death, to grant the slave girl freedom), Brent recalls only happy days spent in this woman's care and says, "I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong" (344). In bequeathing the slave girl to a five-year-old niece, Brent's mistress initiates the first in a long history of betrayals Brent experiences by white women. More importantly, the mistress ultimately represents a second instance of maternal abandonment, leaving Brent to find her own way in a pitiless environment.
Not only is Brent's Aunt Nancy a beloved figure, but she is also, importantly, her mother's twin sister, and therefore perhaps the most appropriate maternal figure for the young girl after her mother's death. Brent supports the importance of Aunt Nancy in her life by declaring her aunt to be "at the beginning and end of everything" (347). Yet such language resists both clarity and elaboration, since Brent presents her aunt as a curiously shadowy presence, rarely mentioned within the pages of the text. Although Brent devotes one very brief chapter to this woman, who "supplied a mother's place," Brent discloses little about their obviously close relationship ("the bond between us was very strong . . . . she always encouraged me . . . . she sent me word never to yield" ), but instead concentrates on the grueling and humiliating slave labor, directed primarily by Mrs. Flint, that consumes all of Aunt Nancy's time and energy (severely restricting her accessibility to Brent), destroys her body (causing a succession of doomed, premature births and finally sterility, among other conditions), and ultimately proves to be the direct cause of her early death. Brent's haunting silence on the subject of Aunt Nancy suggests profound despair and even smoldering rage over the loss of this most perfect surrogate - the mirror image of her deeply lamented mother. Although Brent does not remain "motherless" after Aunt Nancy's death, it may be argued, as evidenced by her later psychic state while hiding in her grandmother's garret, that each loss - particularly this most acutely felt deprivation - serves to intensify her need for an enduring maternal figure.
Orphaned at the age of thirteen when her father dies, Brent next finds sanctuary in her maternal grandmother's home. She retains a child's recollection of a warm, safe, "grand big" haven:
We longed for a home like hers. There we always found sweet balsam for our troubles. She was so loving, so sympathizing! . . . There was a grand big oven there, too. (351-52)
Clearly the most constant and influential person in the girl's life, Brent's grandmother is a freed slave who remains on the plantation and who, with deep affection, provides loving care to her grandchildren. Yet her nurturing, while crucial to Brent's development, is not unilaterally beneficent. Hazel Carby characterizes the grandmother as embodying "aspects of a true womanhood; the source of a strong moral code in the midst of an immoral system . . . pure and pious, a fountainhead of physical and spiritual sustenance" (57). But the grandmother is a far more complicated figure than Carby suggests. While the grandmother clearly understands on one level that her authority is compromised by the system of slavery ("She promised to be a mother to her grandchildren, so far as she might be permitted to do so" ), on a deeper level she rejects this reality.
Brent's grandmother's imposing and uncompromising righteousness has the power to subdue, at times, even Dr. Flint, the immoral new plantation owner; however, she also intimidates her granddaughter, who "feared her as well as loved her" (362). At the same time, Brent's grandmother is guilty of severe lapses in judgment as well as a covetous kind of mothering: She once "loans" her capricious mistress $300 - money she has painstakingly amassed and hoarded in order to buy her children out of slavery - for a pair of silver candelabra, and she never sees the money again (342). And when her son Benjamin escapes from slavery, Brent's grandmother, rather than rejoicing over his freedom, expresses "great . . . sorrow" (355). The most serious contradiction in the grandmother's value system is her strict moral code, on the one hand, and her belief that the "master" must be obeyed, on the other. Brent's grandmother condemns out of hand any act of immorality on the part of the slaves at the same time that she urges obedience of the laws of slavery. The older woman confides to Brent that she, too, had once railed against slavery but that, "when sore troubles came upon her, and she had no arm to lean upon, she learned to call on God, and he lightened her burdens" (356). Brent remarks that "most earnestly did she strive to make us feel that [our enslavement] was the will of God . . . and . . . we ought to pray for contentment" (351).
Brent's philosophical differences with her grandmother surface early on. Echoing yet subtly altering her grandmother's admonishment to "pray for contentment," Brent advises her brother, "We, who were slavechildren, without father or mother, could not expect to be happy. We must be good; perhaps that would bring us contentment" (352). She vehemently opposes her grandmother's acceptance of slavery as "God's will," vowing, "He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave" (360).
The grandmother is at once Brent's ideal and her nemesis - on the one hand, an exemplary model whom she can never hope to emulate; on the other, an unrealistic, disempowering model from whom she wants to break free. Brent's frustration with and philosophical disconnection from her grandmother find voice in a sort of overcompensation as she constantly idealizes her guardian throughout the text. She is "this good grandmother" (342), "the brave old woman" (360), "the kind grandmother" (440), "the dear old woman" (448), "the good, patient old friend" (452), "that blessed old grandmother" (465), "the kind-hearted old woman" (467), "the poor old sufferer" (471), "that good grandmother . . . the dear old grandmother . . . the faithful, loving old friend" (474). The overdetermined characterization, in concert with Brent's consistent use of indefinite articles (e.g., "the," "that") rather than the more intimate, possessive "my," suggests a distancing from her grandmother that subtly undermines their strong bond of kinship and understanding. When Brent irrevocably defies her grandmother's principles, she does so with a canny acceptance of the limitations of the older woman's moral code vis-avis the realities of her prohibitive external world. Still, all these surrogate mothers - her kind mistress, Aunt Nancy, and particularly her grandmother - provide Brent with crucial nurturing during her pre-adolescent years and constitute the essential difference between her having, and not having, a mother.
During this section I have specifically referenced mothering in relation to parental nurturing because slave fathers are, even more often than slave mothers, generally absent figures during their children's upbringing. Uncharacteristically, Brent was allowed to live with her father until her mother died. She remembers him as a strong, skilled, intelligent man. Like her mother, Brent's father would die at a crucial period in her life - the advent of adolescence, the period that she characterizes as most dangerous for slave girls. The earlier loss of her mother, coupled with the suddenness of her father's death and the slave masters' refusal to allow her to mourn him, engender a spirit of anger and rebellion early on in Brent that is not to be assuaged by her grandmother's invocation of God's will:
I thought I should be allowed to go to my father's house the next morning but I was ordered to go for flowers, that my mistress's house might be decorated for an evening party. I spent the day gathering flowers . . . while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. . . . My heart rebelled against God. (345)
Ultimately, Brent is forced to parent herself. And perhaps this was the reality for all slave children, orphaned or not, since their parents were also subject to the slave owner's will. The kindly veteran's advice to the woeful hero in Invisible Man ("'Be your own father, young man. . . . The world is possibility if only you'll discover it'" [Ellison 156]) is the path upon which Brent embarks: It is most Significant psychologically that, while Brent does indeed "discover possibility," she never relinquishes the only partially formed, yet internalized ideal of her biological mother - the most authentic means of keeping her mother close, even in death.
"The Usual Fate of Slave Girls"
The second instance of a mediating space in Brent's narrative involves the central focus of her narrative, the story that she must tell while at the same time - as the authorial tone reflects - she dreads disclosing. Although the slave woman is subject to violence at any time, Brent focuses upon the crucial period of adolescence: "At 14," she writes, "the war of my life had begun" (353). Brent charges that "the secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition" (367), referring specifically to "the usual fate of slave girls," which is, of course, their absolute powerlessness with regard to sexual exploitation.(1)
Alternately pleading and defending her case and the cases of her sisters, Brent argues against her grandmother's teachings. Because moral values are so severely perverted by slavery, "the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others" (386). "O, ye happy women," exclaims Brent, "whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! I wanted to keep myself pure" (384). The picture of security that surrounds white women - which Brent underlines with descriptors such as "sheltered," "protected," and "purity" - mocks the tyranny that young slave women face, and illuminates the perversity of a system that provides only one type of education for young slave girls:
Even the little child . . . will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. . . . She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. (361-62)
Knowledge, for the female slave, is associated with adult behavior, loss of innocence, danger, and degradation. "I had not lived fourteen years in slavery for nothing" (353), Brent writes poignantly, much too knowing for her years.
Though slavery tended, on the one hand, to blur gender lines - placing women in traditionally masculine roles such as performing heavy labor, and men in the traditionally feminine role of subservience - Brent challenges Deborah Grey White's assertion that "female slave bondage was not better or worse, or more or less severe, than male bondage, but it was different" (89). Brent contends that "slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own" (405). Brent's perspective is acutely gendered: When her uncle Benjamin is sold, "we thanked God that he was not" a girl (357). Brent later relates that, "when they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before" (405). Brent emphasizes that
the slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have had religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother, or some good mistress; she may have a lover, whose good opinions are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her may be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless. (382)
Brent's use of the third-person universalizes the plight of slave girls at the same time that it distances her from this very personalized account: Every example she offers above reflects her own experience. The slave owner's methodology describes psychological-more even than physical - intimidation, much like strategies used against prisoners of war - such as sleep and food deprivation and repetition of desired learning - to "break" the young female slave. At this point, the collapse of a previously maintained narrative distance signals a deep authorial tension, as Brent attempts to articulate her personal story. The plight of "the slave girl" is particularized to Brent herself, and the "disease" metaphor that she has previously used to characterize the institution of slavery is now applied specifically to Dr. Flint: He is the "plague," the "vile monster" (352, 361).
Flint is undoubtedly the model that Brent references in the above excerpt of the lecherous slave master who bribes and whispers "foul talk" to the helpless slave girl. He apparently derives more pleasure from a battle of wits than from outright physical assault of the young girl. His methods are crude but cunning. His banishment of Brent's intended, a free-born carpenter whom she loves "with all the ardor of a young girl's first love" (369), precipitates the loss of her emotional innocence. His competition dispatched, Flint moves in, as it were, for the kill.
Flint's predatory nature reflects an unbridled lust for mastery that he advances through aggression and sadism. Dr. Flint's "restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking whom to devour" (352). Brent's characterization of Flint as a roving cannibal and herself as his intended victim holds chilling psychological implications: The perverse nature of his appetites is apparently attached to an infantile orality, based upon destructive impulses projected outward and bound up in the satisfaction of his own passions (Freud, Outline 336). Brent's fear that Flint will "eat her alive" clearly represents sexual anxiety.
At fifteen Brent stands alone between two widely disparate moral poles: Flint tries "his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled" (361). And Brent's grandmother's home offers her only limited security. Unwilling or unable to understand her granddaughter's predicament, Brent's grandmother continues to preach the essential virtues of chastity and morality, on the one hand, and to admonish her (grand)children to obey their master, on the other. Such mixed messages place Brent in an impossible position with regard to Dr. Flint. The friction between Brent and her grandmother is untempered by the sort of mediating influence that a mother could feasibly provide - a sympathetic generational connection that could understand both the grandmother's idealistic moral stance and the young girl's very real predicament.
Brent's desperation ("Resistance is hopeless") is fueled by her crushing inability to locate any refuge or protection from sexual jeopardy. Even if her parents were alive or if she were "married," the parents or husband of a slave have "no power to protect her" (36970). While her grandmother's presence in the neighborhood offers her "some protection" (362), by qualifying the level of that protection Brent acknowledges that her grandmother is not physically, socially, or psychologically equipped to safeguard her. Moreover, Brent's second young mistress is "still a child, and [Brent] could look for no protection from her" (354). In fact, Brent's relationship with Mrs. Flint is inevitably adversarial: "I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred. . . . I gained nothing by seeking the protection of my mistress." In fact, Brent begins to "fear for [her] life" (366-67), and eventually Mrs. Flint puts Brent's fear into words, vowing after she sends Brent away that "she would kill me if I came back" (404).
With all avenues of help apparently closed, Brent is nonetheless determined to avoid Flint. ("I shuddered to think of being the mother of children that should be owned by my old tyrant" [385-86].) When she learns that he is building her a cottage in which to consummate their liaison, she dematerializes, figuratively speaking, in order to waft between the rock and the hard place and, incredibly, locates a mediating space among her grandmother's impossible moral code, the loss of her chosen first love, Mrs. Flint's life-threatening jealousy, and Flint's utter depravity. Brent's subsequent course shows how her earlier advice to her brother ("We could not expect to be happy. We must be good") has to be altered when gendered: "Slavewomen cannot expect to stay 'good,' so we must be smart." Brent is
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 last in trampling his victim under his feet. . . . What could I do? I thought and thought, till I became desperate, and made a plunge in the abyss. (384)
Brent's "plunge in the abyss" takes the form of accepting the advances of a prominent white man whose unimpeachable reputation and respectability prevent Flint from challenging him (or Brent). Consenting to a relationship with Sands is clearly a preemptive move on her part, painfully borne, not of a lack of moral values, but of a fierce resolve to spare herself from the dreaded Dr. Flint's sexual advances at any cost. While her decision is far from ideal, it does qualify as the lesser of two evils, under her severely compromised circumstances. The vulgar (and married) Flint and the distinctly less disagreeable Sands are not, after all, entirely distinguishable from one another. Both men are "civilized" members of the community; both perceive Brent as an object of sexual desire; and both first proposition her when she is yet a child. But it is not only that Sands is the lesser evil: He also represents for Brent the critical difference between passive resignation and proactive rebellion. Choosing him, in effect, allows her to make a choice:
It seems less degrading to give one's self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you. . . . There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible. (385)
In lieu of a mediating influence between her grandmother and Flint, and in the absence of a mother to guide her, she becomes, in effect, her own mother. Brent carves her space by calling upon a terrible energy borne of alienation, injury, hopelessness, and anger, surrendering all prospect of a virtuous life as her grandmother defines it. For Brent, there is at least some virtue in self-determination, in choosing for oneself.
Like the Signifying Monkey, a classic trickster figure in African American lore who, lacking power, uses cunning to outwit the master, Brent's "deliberate calculation" reveals how she has been forced to move beyond adolescent illusions. When Flint asks if she loves Sands, she replies coolly," 'I am thankful that I do not despise him'" (389) - hardly "the ardor of a young girl's first love" that she had experienced with her intended (369). The trickster serves other functions besides misdirection and the provision of maneuvering room. Brent's focus on outwitting Flint also distracts her from the moral issues involved in her action:
I would do anything, every thing, for the sake of defeating him. . . . I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I favored another; and it was something to triumph over my tyrant even in that small way. (352, 385)
A defensive tension between anger and shame, and personal guilt and innocence, runs through this section of the document, as though the author herself is still battling the burdensome weight of her grandmother's moral code. The reader, too, is surprised by the narrative trickster's legerdemain: Brent's announcement to Flint that "in a few months I shall be a mother" is again subordinated to the exigencies of her battle of wits with Flint. "As for Dr. Flint," she says, "I had a feeling of satisfaction and triumph in the thought of telling him" (386).
Despite an often humorous, gamelike overlay or connotation, trickery is an art extending far beyond mere gamesmanship. Trickster figures during slavery often conducted deadly serious business amidst a precarious, imbalanced power relationship. Brent's military language in these passages (e.g., "triumph," "tyrant," "defeat") underlines the gravity of her situation and recalls her earlier statement that this era marks the "war of my life." While her declarations of victory are inconsistent with her metaphor that indicates a fall from grace ("headlong plunge," "plunge into the abyss"), they are perfectly consistent with the delicate balance she maintains on the narrow, mediating ledge she has managed to construct between total subservience and limited self-determination.
It is, parenthetically, interesting to note that the trickster's acts are often shown, in slave narratives, to be manifested through the written word. While the text of Incidents stands as testament to what Robert Stepto refers to as the "pregeneric myth" or leitmotif of the African American literary tradition - i.e., the quest for literacy and freedom (ix) - tricksterism and signification were also crucial ploys in slave life, particularly in an effective slave plan. Brent's letters that she arranges to be mailed from New York while hiding in her grandmother's home convince Flint of her actual departure (448-49), a ruse reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's forging of his own "protection," or pass, to advance an escape attempt (Douglass 307). The act also recalls, in a less direct way, William Wells Brown's audacious gift of his narrative to his "master" following his escape (Brown 44). In their use of the written word, these slaves' shrewd manipulation of a skill which they had no legal right to possess illustrates a classic application of tricksterism.
Brent's relationship with Sands results in the birth of a boy and a girl, and these children prove to be the driving force in Brent's desperate search for a third mediating space. She determines that, "whatever slavery might do to me, it could not shackle my children" (433).
Neither Freedom Nor Slavery: The Garret Years
The reaction of Brent's grandmother to the girl's first pregnancy precipitates a trauma the magnitude of which is perceived only later. Adding to Brent's multiple losses, the grandmother temporarily rejects her, initially refusing to accept the awful coming of age that has enfolded her granddaughter:
"O Linda! has it come to this? I had rather see you dead than to see you as you now are. You are a disgrace to your dead mother." She tore from my fingers my mother's wedding ring and her silver thimble. "Go away!" she exclaimed, "and never come to my house, again." . . . She had always been so kind to me! . . . With what feelings did I now close that little gate, which I used to open with such an eager hand in my childhood! It closed upon me with a sound I never heard before. (387)
The grandmother's refusal to understand her granddaughter's plight is a classic response to untenable circumstances and loathsome memories (Anna Freud 89-91). It would not be irrelevant to note here that Brent's mother, like her father, was a mulatto. This information, which Brent relates on the opening page of the narrative, indicates that the grandmother had conceived a child (or, more precisely, children) through sexual relations with a white man. In concert with this biological information, the grandmother's vehemence on the subject of Brent's pregnancy contributes powerfully to the probability that she, too, had suffered "the usual fate" of slave girls. While her coping mechanism protects her equilibrium and sense of self, it seriously undermines those of her granddaughter.
While the grandmother's banishment remains in effect for only a few days, it represents a psychological watershed in Brent's life. "I was indebted to her," Brent writes, "for all my comforts, spiritual or temporal" (346). The closed door represents the end of her childhood, of innocence, and of maternal nurturing and protection. In repossessing important familial artifacts, the grandmother does incalculable damage to the young girl's sense of self. The reclamation of the mother's ring symbolically tears mother from daughter once again, underlining Brent's motherlessness. The dispossession of this particular emblem - a wedding ring - also marks the pregnant girl as unmarried, and therefore immoral. In divesting Brent of her mother's symbol of family and also of the grandmother's thimble - an article associated with domesticity - the grandmother severs her granddaughter from the threads of female kinship and the security of domestic asylum. While Brent's grandmother is indeed "a remarkable woman in a number of ways," her response to Brent's loss of chastity aligns her with a crippling ideology of impossible virtue for slave women at this crucial moment in her granddaughter's life.
As with her first pregnancy, Brent relates the fact of her second almost parenthetically, again in connection with Flint's reaction: "When Dr. Flint learned that I was again to be a mother, he was exasperated beyond measure" (404). The insertion of this announcement within a subordinate clause suggests that Brent again wants to suppress, even as she reveals, the fact of her condition. Though she becomes a mother, her maternity does not reflect - at least initially - a desire in itself but rather the inevitable result of her liaison with Sands. Brent had expressed no desire to have children, even when she had hoped to marry her true love, for "if we had children, I knew they must 'follow the condition of the mother.' What a terrible blight that would be on the heart of a free, intelligent father!" (374). Thus, Brent's pregnancies evoke deep feelings of shame, exacerbated by society's displacement of blame from the patriarch onto the slave woman:
It was a crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child. . . . If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismisses him, if she is a white woman; but if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd. (349, 403)
This mother at once deeply loves and sincerely regrets her children, since their existence constitutes a visible sign of her degradation, an irrefutable mark of her transgression, and the prospect of her children's eventual judgment against her - "My unconscious babe was the ever-present witness of my shame" (404).
Brent's relationship to her children begins in denial and proceeds to inconsequential death-wishes before she is able even to consider the sole alternative to slavery or death. The escape to freedom, however, is a highly daunting prospect. The strain of mothering herself as well as her children eventually depletes Brent's psychic and physical resources, so that seven long years of mediation must pass before freedom can be realized.
Mrs. Flint's removal of Brent from the Flint plantation threatens to "blunt and destroy" the natural affection between mother and child, as Frederick Douglass notes in his own narrative (256). When Brent - like Douglass's mother - steals home to visit her own, yet not her own, children, she finds that because of her absence they think her dead:
I went to look at my children. . . . Benny stirred. I turned back and whispered, "Mother is here." . . . He exclaimed, "O mother! You ain't dead, are you?" (414)
Along with Brent's estrangement from her children, her growing inability to accept their slave status defines her goal. Brent's death wishes give way to a growing determination to deliver her children from being "owned" by anyone: "Now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too" (391). Flint, Jr.'s vow to "break Ellen like a horse" (412), a prospect that holds the implicit threat of sexual violation, empowers her to act.
Brent's family boasts a proud line of freedom fighters and escapees, including her brother William and her Uncle Ben. Although her father died a slave, she often "seemed to hear [his] voice," urging her to freedom (417). Her uncle's escape cautions her, however, that maintaining kinship ties and securing one's freedom are generally incompatible: "As Benjamin turned away, he said, 'Phil, I part with all my kindred.' And so it proved. We never heard from him again" (360). Believing that a mother must never "forsake her children," Brent's grandmother exacerbates Brent's already conflicted feelings about her escape plan, which involves sending for the children later:
Whenever the children climbed on my knee, or laid their heads on my lap, she would say, "Poor little souls! What would you do without a mother? She don't love you as I do." And she would hug them to her own bosom, as if to reproach me for my want of affection; but she knew all the while that I loved them better than my life. (418)
Brent's ability to forge a mediating position serves her again, planting her on middle ground between her own and her grandmother's wishes: She "leaves" her children in order to stay with them. Brent hides in plain sight, calculating correctly that her master, concentrating his terrible energy on her, would sell the children to Sands. With Flint in relentless pursuit, Brent spends seven years in a small, cryptlike garret, "nine feet long and seven wide" (437), above her grandmother's house.
The hazards involved in an escape attempt necessitate extremely deliberate planning. The lengthy process toward freedom in Brent's case, however, is arguably attributable more to her psychological state than to the inherent dangers of an escape attempt. While Brent writes that several escape plans never materialized, it is also likely that during this period she does not really want to leave the garret. Nor does her grandmother want her to go:
"Don't worry yourself, grandmother. . . . I shall get out of this dark hole some time or other."
"I hope you will, child . . . but whenever you do go, it will break your old grandmother's heart." (452)
The grandmother's incredible dexterity with mixed messages, illustrated again here as she concurrently affirms and repudiates Brent's intention, only encourages Brent's stasis. Still, this garret shelter, a sphere that exists beyond the pall, constitutes the most significant mediating space that Brent has yet negotiated.
Brent's perpetual search for maternal nurturing has actually been heightened by the brief yet traumatic banishment from her grandmother's home. Like the "grand big oven," the garret represents Brent's unconditional reinstatement as beloved daughter to her (grand)mother. This interval, in fact, enables Brent to mediate between a number of oppositions at the same time. Not only does the garret stand as an unencumbered space between motherlessness and maternal nurturing, but, in a larger sense, it also serves Brent as a space between freedom and slavery, childhood and adulthood, motherhood and childlessness, presence and absence, even life and death. Significantly, Brent characterizes her stay in this exceedingly cramped and uncomfortable haven as "the first time since my childhood that I had experienced any real happiness" (437). Her reference to childhood is precisely the point: The garret shelters her from adult dangers, and leaving would be tantamount to abandoning the safety of the womb. Brent's tranquillity during her garret sojourn is predicated not solely upon her escape from the hazards of the external world, but also upon her resolve to find, from such a narrow vantage point, the means to free her children from slavery. Her stay in the garret in fact evokes Freud's depiction of the reality principle; that is, "the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure" (Beyond 4).
In a very real sense, Brent in fact regresses to a pre-sexual, infantile - even, arguably, a pre-natal - state, sheltered in a mother's internal embrace. Her confinement and chronic illnesses require that she be cared for, so that she is both "there" and "not there" for her grandmother, who ignores her presence when others are around, but who feeds, washes, and nurtures her as she would an infant in private. Brent's loss of speech, regression, and refuge into a passive position during this period suggest an hysterical reaction, a posture perfectly consistent with Julia Kristeva's depiction of a psyche in repressed mourning for the mother while refusing to consciously acknowledge maternal loss (41). Even though Brent has abdicated her maternal role while immobilized in the garret, she attempts to maintain an invisible link with her children even as she invokes the solace of the womb/tomb.
Brent's relationship to her children during the garret interval offers a perspective like that afforded through one-way glass: A tiny gimlet admits a trifle of light and air, and allows Brent to see and hear the children when they come into view. But between mother and children there is no reciprocity, no nurturing, no shared contact:
I heard the voices of my children. . . . I could watch the children, and when they were near enough, I could hear their talk. (438-39)
Season after season, year after year, I peeped at my children's faces, and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, "Your mother is here." (467)
Brent observes - rather than participates in - her children's lives. She is conscious of her children, but, as she had earlier wished during her death fantasies, they are unconscious of her.
The maternal consequences of her continued concealment and absence are considerable. For one, her children's memories of her begin to wane:
Grandmother brought the children out on the piazza, that I might hear their voices. . . . Benny said, "Grandmother . . . why don't . . . all of us go and live where mother is? I should like it; wouldn't you, Ellen?" "Yes, I should like it," replied Ellen; "but how could we find her? I don't remember how mother looked - do you, Benny?" (454)
Unseen and almost unremembered, Brent cannot possibly mother her children as long as she remains, for all practical purposes, a child herself.
The grossly inadequate nurturing that Brent has been able to provide (painstakingly sewing Christmas presents for her children, for example) compromises crucial elements of the children's upbringing, including a dependable and affirming maternal presence, positive mirroring, freedom from the fear of abandonment, moral guidance, construction of a sound racial identity, and a secure sense of self:
As she held Benny in her lap, he said, "Aunt Nancy . . . the speculator is going to take me and Ellen away. He's a bad man. It's wrong for him to take grandmother's children. I want to go to my mother." (430)
Benny's poignant misstatement ("grandmother's children") illustrates some of this maternal deficiency.
In fact, as Brent later discovers, Benny and Ellen have assumed a very adult - not to say parental - role toward her throughout her concealment. Having eventually become aware of her presence, they have protected her secret despite continued pressure to reveal her whereabouts. Their display of ignorance of her whereabouts even within the privacy of the grandmother's home suggests a phenomenal equanimity and poise. It also indicates that the children have learned to live without their mother.
Brent is finally expelled from the garret through an unexpectedly selfless act on the part of her grandmother:
My grandmother ... entreated me not to go. . . . I found her in a nervous, excited state. . . . she had forgotten to lock the door behind her. . . . In her agitation [she] opened the door, without thinking of me. In stepped Jenny, the mischievous housemaid. . . . "Poor child!" [grandmother] exclaimed, "My carelessness has ruined you. The boat ain't gone yet. Get ready immediately, and go." (471)
In fact, the grandmother is "thinking of" Brent: Escape from slavery cannot be accomplished until Brent leaves her hiding place. Key phrases such as excited, forgotten, without thinking, and careless imply that a deliberate act takes place in the guise of a blunder. Reconciling conflicting impulses, the grandmother redeems her earlier possessiveness by executing a loving deceit that exposes Brent's hiding place - hardly believable behavior from a woman who has so conscientiously guarded Brent all these years.
Brent's narrative again resonates with Ellison's in the imagery, and intent, of her "dismal hole," characterized as a "dark hole" in Invisible Man. Ellison's hero refers to his underground period as a hibernation, or "a covert preparation for a more overt action" (13). By the epilogue, Ellison's narrator has decided that
the hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. . . . In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. (580)
Similarly, it is time for Brent to emerge. She, too, has "whipped it all except the mind." But the psychological forces that have kept her immobile have yet to be reconciled. Brent's shame, fears, and sense of loss must be confronted even after she leaves her secure hiding place.
Epilogue: "Mother is Here"
Following her escape north, Brent eventually secures her children's freedom and finds employment with the Bruce family. And although she maintains throughout that the reunion of her family is her strongest desire, when the first Mrs. Bruce dies, Brent leaves her children to accompany Mr. Bruce and baby Mary to England for several months. After all her efforts to establish a home for her children, this act seems at first glance precipitous and oddly incongruous with her stated desires:
The little motherless one was accustomed to me, and attached to me, and I thought she would be happier in my care than in that of a stranger. I could also earn more in this way. . . . So I put Benny to a trade, and left Ellen to remain in the house with my friend and go to school. (496)
What emerges on closer examination is a picture of a woman who embraces another woman's child because she is already estranged from her own children. At least a bond - perhaps sisterly - exists between mother and daughter; but son Benny seems indisposed to maintain familial (or racial) ties with his mother. Because his heritage had not been affirmed within the family circle, his perception of blackness has doubtless been formed by the external world, and consequently his mother is a part of the racial world that he rejects. Further, her earlier "death" has apparently transformed youthful complaisance into feelings of betrayal and resentment in adulthood.
With her daughter's approbation, and her son's subsequent move to California with his Uncle William, Brent attempts to reconcile herself to the disconnected state of her family. At the end of the narrative Brent considers her estrangement from her children: "The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own" (513). Reflecting this loss in her epilogue, Brent presents Mary Bruce as the final mediating object that neutralizes her condition of childlessness. Baby Mary symbolizes Brent's immaculate conception - untainted by sexuality or immorality:
I loved Mrs. Bruce's babe. . . . it made me think of the time when Benny and Ellen were babies. (486)
I was very desirous that my dear Mary should steer straight in the midst of so much propriety. (497)
The possessive shift from "Mrs. Bruce's baby" to "my dear Mary" in the space of a few pages reveals Brent's desire to assume the role of mother to Mary Bruce. The distant dream of holding Benny and Ellen to her breast is actualized by the reality of Mary in her embrace.
The death of the first Mrs. Bruce allows Brent to be Mary's mother. In England, where "for the first time in [her] life" Brent is "treated according to [her] deportment, without reference to [her] complexion" (497), with Baby Mary in her arms and Mr. Bruce by her side, Brent stands inside a portrait that represents the familial ideal and the sense of propriety that she has been denied throughout life: mother and wife with child and husband, accorded all the legitimacy and respectability that accompanies freedom - and whiteness. Brent's final mediating space, between isolated childlessness and a home with her children, is not the dream she wished for, but it is nonetheless a secure site that provides security and comfort, unencumbered by racial prejudice or sexual danger. She shares her space at the end of the novel not with her own children, but with a decent man who makes no sexual demands upon her, eventually a woman (the second Mrs. Bruce) who befriends her, and, most importantly, a beloved child who gives her guileless, uncomplicated love.
It is surely by design that Brent reserves her final thoughts for her grandmother. Just as she has received redemption from daughter Ellen, Brent in turn absolves her grandmother, honoring the unstinting love and devotion that overwhelm her grandmother's shortcomings which, in any event, must be considered within the framework of the external world in which she lived. In these final paragraphs Brent exhibits a deeper understanding of the older woman's heroic nature and an integrated, restored vision of "her" grandmother, no longer distanced by the impersonal "the" that she has used to characterize the older woman earlier in the narrative. Brent's last lines express a benediction of sorts - both to, and from, her grandmother: "Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea" (513).
Jean Fagan Yellin describes Brent's story as "at once the plea of an erring American female, the heroic recital of a valiant black slave mother, and a woman's vindication of her life" ("Texts" 263). Brent's life is circumscribed by an unconscionable social system, but in spite of this she never truly succumbs to the imperatives and consequences of her enslavement. Instead, she conjures up avenues of impossible possibility time and again. Without a mother, she locates maternal figures; forced to relinquish her chastity, she reconstructs her virtue on her own terms; torn between heaven and hell on multiple levels, she secures a place in purgatory for seven years. Most importantly, with such narrow mediating spaces available and so little room in which to maneuver, she refuses absolutely to compromise with regard to her children's freedom. Although she insured that they were always protected and nurtured, Brent's maternal method has been suffused with "middle ground" - she has neither nurtured her children with dependable consistency, taught them moral values, or instilled in them racial knowledge or pride. Her determination, however, to liberate Benny and Ellen from slavery has been unequivocal. This single, momentous accomplishment, due solely to perseverance and profound maternal love, is an extraordinary achievement. No mother could give her children a gift more precious than freedom.
1. Ironically, as Yellin notes, Jacobs's book is the only slave narrative that focuses specifically on the sexual vulnerability of slave girls and women ("Texts" 263).
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.
Brown, William Wells. Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown. 1847. Clotel; Or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. New York: Carol Publishing, 1989. 17-55.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Gates, Classic 243-331.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Rev. ed. Trans. Cecil Baines. New York: International UP, 1966.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
-----. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. Rev. ed. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1969.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: NAL, 1987.
-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Gilmore, Al-Tony, ed. Revisiting Blassingame's The Slave Community. Westport: Greenwood, 1978.
Kohut, Heinz. The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders. New York: International UP, 1971.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Gates, Classic 333-515.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
"The Signifying Monkey." Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing. Ed. Deirdre Mullane. New York: Anchor, 1993. 261-63.
Spillers, Hortense J. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.
Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.
White, Deborah Grey. Ar'n't I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. "Introduction." Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. By Harriet A. Jacobs. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. vii-xxxiv.
-----. "Texts and Contexts of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself." The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 262-82.
Gloria T. Randle, a 1994 University of Chicago Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Michigan State University. Professor Randle dedicates this essay to Geneva Smitherman and Grace Rogers.
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|Author:||Randle, Gloria T.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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