American History “Through Women’s Eyes” by Dubois & Dumenil

For women, slavery was one of the most difficult and cruel periods in history. African-American women were deprived rights and freedoms. Certainly, resistance to the institution of slavery required mothers to protest the habitual violation of an ideologically sanctified relationship–in effect, a matter of insisting upon the enslaved woman’s right to the privileges and duties of motherhood.

Thesis Mary Boykin Chesnut and Harriet Jacobs depict cruelties and inequalities caused by the institution of slavery and fought for equal rights and freedoms for white and black women.

Mary Boykin Chesnut was a white female leader who fought for social equality and unveiled casualties of life faced by women. Mary Boykin Chesnut represented a middle-class ideology and continued her long and able service not only to antislavery efforts but also to the culturally defined institution of motherhood by editing the manuscript that would become one of the most striking narratives of the nineteenth century. Her cultural identity is defined by the systematic vice of slavery; she discovers both the motive and the terms of her resistance to that system by willfully transgressing the culturally defined standards of virtue that proved inapplicable to her situation (Dubois and Dumenil 142).

Harriet Jacobs was an African American woman born in slavery. All her life, she resisted violence and tried to protect her children from cruelties and oppression faced by slaves. In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she depicts the hardship and poverty of a slave family. In fact, Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), the book’s pseudonymous author, cannot even offer the dubious protection or comfort of a closing moral–for such closure was not available to her or to the larger community whose story she represents.

Jacobs knew well that many antislavery white women, in their search for injustice, did not even think to look beyond the visible violation of the sacred relationship of mother and child. In other words, they saw only those horrors that threatened the ideological security of the domestic sphere, and from that sphere, they judged such horrors. Thus distanced, Jacobs could not hope to “tell the whole truth” unless she could teach her readers to hear and understand the whole truth (Dubois and Dumenil 179).

Mary Boykin Chesnut and Harriet Jacobs portray that African-American women were deprived of a chance to raise their children and play an active role in their upbringing.(Dubois and Dumenil 165). Jacobs undermines the ideology by which womanhood can be comfortably reconfigured, offering no entrance into biblical womanhood except by way of an unprotected entrance into social and political history. In other words, motherhood, as viewed from Jacobs’s perspective, does not provide an unproblematic bond between narrator and reader, for Linda Brent, the pseudonymous author and subject of this story, cannot help but represent the most threatening and pervasive vice.

In her diary, Mary Boykin Chesnut underlines that the dubious protection or comfort of a closing moral, for such closure was not available to her or to the larger community whose story she represents. Instead, Jacobs states that white mothers and daughters cannot identify with Brent, but that they must learn to do so if they are to achieve their own moral ideals, if they are to fulfill the terms of their own self-definition. this choice requires white women to learn from Brent not only a new language but also a new mode of understanding, one characterized not by a separation of subject and object but rather by a reciprocal relationship between two differently knowing subjects. Jacobs issues to her readers an epistemic challenge to change the nature of their knowledge by changing the way they look at and learn from African Americans.

For instance, Linda Brent has no living mother, and can look for her maternal guidance only from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s own rejection of Brent after this transgression emphasizes the strictness with which American Christianity defines that which it creates, forcing Brent outside the moral sanctuary of the domestic sphere. Brent herself is left with the experience that will produce the children who will motivate her eventual escape from the South.

But the internal logic of Incidents comes to a point here, as Brent completes her identity as a highly determined product of the American Christian slave culture, literally embodying its moral and social contradictions in the children she soon carries. Jacobs’s task is to draw her readers themselves beyond the gate, to show that they reside there already, and thereby to make Brent their representative and her quest theirs as well (Dubois and Dumenil 178).

Mary Boykin Chesnut shows that the relationship between the character of the nation and the character of its women means that habits and principles must be developed organically early in a girl’s development instead of being engrafted late; and this relationship means also that mothers must devote themselves to overseeing this process of organic development (Dubois and Dumenil 164). The question of a mother’s duty in relation to social order was one of both praxis and principle. How one defined one’s principles, in turn, defined one’s representative identity as the individual embodiment of intermeshed political and religious ideologies.

Deliberately private, representing a simplicity of faith and virtue that belies the complexity of life, the domestic sphere served the most public of purposes. To many women as well as men in the antebellum United States, for women to leave the home and enter the political arena was a matter not of leaving the private sphere to enter the public, but rather of redefining one’s role in the public sphere, for women were thought to serve distinctively public roles by holding to private spheres.

As this appropriation demonstrates, the ideology of motherhood–like religion itself, like law, like republican philosophy–proved infinitely flexible. Whether or not a woman accepted the role of a true woman, the task of applying this generalized role to the concerns of the day was unavoidably political. To be a mother in opposition to law and custom was to announce an ideological reconstitution of motherhood.

In sum, Mary Boykin Chesnut and Harriet Jacobs belong to different races and social classes, but both of them unveil hardship and life grievances faced by women during the slavery period. The term and notion of motherhood referred only to white women, but African-American women were deprived of a chance to educate their children and play a dominant role in their life. The role of a mother was violated, and Jacobs argues that it is only by acknowledging and studying the terms of that violation and corruption that motherhood can be restored to integrity.

The need for transition from slavery to free society is central to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, but Jacobs cannot claim the cultural authority of motherhood; she can only struggle to call into question her readers’ own claims to authority.

Works Cited

Dubois, E. L., Dumenil, L. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Chapter 3. Bedford/ST. Martin’s, 2005.