Literature and Racism Essay Example

  • Category: Racism, Social Issues,
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An account of race relations as read in Harriet A. Jacobs “Incidents in the life of a slave girl” And William Faulkner’s “That evening sun” – American literature exam - Question 4

Where does one draw inspiration when attempting to make an analysis covering literary works from one of the most brutal and guttering times within human history. In attempt to reveal some of the issues and themes within race relations of the American south in the 19th I have chosen to analyse two literary works that where made roughly seventy years apart, both depicting some of the horrors experienced on a day to day basis by the people living them.

While one of them is biographical in nature and the other purely fictional, I find that Harriet Jacobs incidents in the life of a slave girl and William Faulkners that evening sun provides and adequate representation of the experiences that black slaves had in this period in time. I will start my analysis by first going through incidents in the life of a slave girl pointing out some of the most important themes in accordance to the question of the prevalence of race relations, while also exemplifying directly from the text itself some of the ideas and occurrences throughout the novel.

I will then move on to the short novel that evening sun and analyse it in the same way as mentioned above, I will however, at the same time draw out some of the correlations and differences between the two literary works throughout the second analysis. I shall refrain from focusing on some of the other important themes in both works seeing as that would take the focus away from the question of the prevalence of race relations itself. I will therefore pinpoint what I deem most important in order to not only answer the question, but also provide my own deductions and thoughts over how and why the stories were written the way they were.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet

Incidents in the life of a slave girl is a novel that not only proposes a deep delving view into the life of a female (and to a certain degree male) slave, but it also provides a more varied perspective into the values and priorities of the black community in general at a time when slavery was still at a high in the southern states. Certain prominent themes that are worth noting are as follows: Self-assertion, independence, literacy and its value to the black slave, family loyalty and community spirit.

There are several more themes throughout the novel also worth noting, but for the sake of keeping the analysis focused on the question proposed as to how race relations are represented, I will state the following: the question is to be interpreted in two ways: number one is the relation that black people would have with white people accounting for both slaves as well as free citizens. We can safely call this the interracial relationship. Number two is the relationship that African Americans slaves as well as free citizens would have between each other. This I will refer to as the co-racial relationship.

It is of great importance to underline this because in her novel, Harriet A. Jacobs focuses intensely on how the community as well as family between slaves was extremely valued. This is something that was often not focused on in other black male slave narratives. It is also the reason that I find it to be one of the most important themes of the novel itself. The remaining themes stated above will also be dealt with further in the analysis.

Harriet introduces herself by stating “I was born..” (Mckay, Nellie and Foster Smith, Frances 2013) but instead of providing the reader with a time and place as one might expect, she instead chooses to say, “a slave” (Mckay, Nellie and Foster Smith, Frances 2013). This was not uncommon to see among former slaves that were detailing the lives they once had, in fact it was a way for them to cast away the connotations that came with being one.

This is one of the many tools that comes with writing a personal narrative and for them it was seen as rebirth as well as retaking control over their own lives, being able to manifest their own destiny and being unique humans on par with that of the white man. She follows it up with discussing her family relations and in some of the later chapters we see the relationship she had with her nurturing sweet grandmother, which later on in her life would extend towards her own children. By sharing these thoughts and feelings of a loving family she is in fact implying that the love between black people can be just as strong, and just as potent as that of the white family.

Throughout the novel we are constantly reminded of the master-slave relationship and how it affected Harriet. She describes how female slaves would often be under the will of the master to sexually abuse them and treat them with no more worth or dignity than any other object. The idea that blacks were inferior both mentally and physically was important to the white masters in the south because it allowed them to manipulate and keep the otherwise fit, healthy and intelligent slaves under control. Therefore, it was constantly reinforced by the masters that black slaves should not be allowed to read nor write, as this would seriously impede their ability to control their slaves. Harriet was aware of this fact, and she was also aware of the possibilities that being able to read and write could provide the slaves.

Most of the slaves that succeeded in fleeing to the north at the time, were in fact literate. She states that slave masters would often lie about the north to the slaves and tell them that many people up there were living in abject poverty and that it would not be worth it to try and escape (Mckay, Nellie and Foster Smith, Frances 2013). That coupled with the fact that brutal physical punishment along with constant mental torment was so prevalent, made it so that many slaves never dared to try and run simply because they did not know what was past the south. It was simply not worth it to even attempt.

For Harriet, the fact that she was able to both read and write was one of the deciding factors in allowing her to escape, and this is seen throughout the entire novel. In the bigger picture, and after the passing of the fugitive slave act, freedom meant either crossing into the physical borders of Canada or Mexico but it also meant they had to escape the mentality and brainwashing created by the white masters that black people were simply just inferior to white people and that this had been ordained by god. Since many blacks at the time were both hugely spiritual and many of them also Christian, a large part of them became institutionalized to such a degree that they had accepted that their fate was destined to serve the white race.  

Co-racial Relationship

When it comes to the co-racial relationship as I mentioned earlier, there are two deciding factors that come into play when discussing this specific subject. In chapter 22 Linda expresses revulsion and dejection of the “free” black man. Now this is not specifically for the reason that he is free, but rather the fact that the free black man would for the most part try to “pass” as white. His reasons for doing so, may seem fairly obvious to outsiders, but for Linda this raises a serious mental and emotional conflict, “ who tried to pass himself off for white, and who was always ready to do any mean work for the sake of currying favor with white people.” (Mckay, Nellie and Foster Smith, Frances 2013) for as I mentioned before, community and family around both current and former slaves meant everything to Linda, and it is something that she values extremely high. One of the reasons that she reacts so strongly about this particular subject could be because her own uncle Benjamin also wanted to “pass” as white in order to avoid conflict and potentially being kidnapped and sent back into slave labor. This happens again in chapter 38 where Linda´s child Ben had left to go on a whaling voyage in order to avoid the abuse and torment of his peers, picking on him solely for the reason that he was black. Since he is already gone, Linda is forced to come to terms with her son’s decision to pass as “white”

The Core Theme

In chapter 39 towards the end of the novel we return to one of the core values/themes as it has coursed all throughout. The importance of strength within family and the bonds it creates between the people in the black community as a whole is underlined once again when Linda confesses to her daughter that her father is in fact a white man and her daughter responds saying, “But now I never think anything about my father. All my love is for you.” (Mckay, Nellie and Foster Smith, Frances 2013) her daughter seems unphased by the statement made and confesses that she now only has to worry about loving her mother, brother and no one else. The chapter also acknowledges that Linda is willing to make a great sacrifice in order to ensure that her daughter becomes well educated, but more importantly that she becomes literate or in this case free. 

The story that Harriet portrays through her narrator Linda in this novel is not without its critique to the both the authenticity of the story as well as the writing itself. Ranging from critique that Harriet apparently did not want to publish the book in her own name, all the way to the surrealness of her hiding in her grandmother’s attic for seven whole years making it seems too fantastical to be true.

Others thought the story itself was published too late to have any real impact on slavery itself, but then again, when narrating a personal biography, is one required to have a political manifest behind it? Many such critiques where put forth, but after finding letter correspondences between Harriet and many other prominent characters in the 19th century such as abolitionist Amy post and Harriet’s own editor Lydia Maria Child, it was quickly deduced that the authenticity of the work was real indeed as well as being of the most courageous pieces of literature that was produced at that period in time.

That Evening Sun by Faulkner

William Faulkner’s that evening sun bears many resemblances and correlations to the story of incidents in the life of a slave girl but it also bears certain important distinctions in and of itself and this analysis will attempt to highlight some of the similarities/differences seen in the two literary works in order to establish a discussion under which further analysis can be investigated and procured. Faulkner personally believed that the degradation and violence against the black society had to come to an end (De Santis, Christopher 2005). 

The story itself carries with it overlying themes that are very similar to that of incidents, such themes includes but is not limited to: distinctions between rich and poor, prejudice, vilifying and with it the subjugation and abuse of blacks. One important thing to note when comparing these two stories is that while being entirely fictional, Faulkner’s work still exemplified much of the reality that was to be found in 19th and 18th century America. Its validity should not be criticised for the reality of the story itself but rather the representation that Faulkner procures in telling it.

In section one where Nancy’s teeth are kicked out by the white deacon it is simply rationalized that blacks were worth no more to whites as any other object would have been. They were therefore treated as such; much alike what Harriet also describes in incidents. The juxtaposition is of course that if a free black man ever tried to familiarize himself with a white man or woman he would be punished severely. The consequences for doing so were unimaginably harsh, and in many cases resulted in hanging. In this section we also find out that Nancy is pregnant, and the father is after all probability a white man.

Nancy is so ashamed over this that she attempts to unsuccessfully hang herself, “hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little, like a little balloon.” (Faulkner, William 1931). The importance of this particular note is that in incidents we see that Linda slowly, although reluctantly accepts herself and her kin merging into the white man’s world as opposed to Linda who seemingly cannot accept the fact that she should give birth to the child of a white father. Nancy is terrified that Jesus might be back and that he might kill her for being pregnant with a child that is not his own, especially not the child of a white man. just like Linda in incidents the main character is being chased by the sexually/murderously charged man.

However, the reasons that she is fearing for her life is different, in incidents it is because Linda was a runaway slave and in this novel it is because she is apparently pregnant with the “white mans child”. The implications of race relations are however still very prevalent in both circumstances and are therefore worth noting. Although Jesus is not white, he still exemplifies the same characteristics as Dr. Flint does in incidents and are therefore compatible for comparison.

While Nancy fears for her life we are told that Mrs. Compson is unhappy about her husband’s decision to protect her and scolds him for being more concerned with his slave rather than his wife. This is interesting to note as well, because in incidents we also see that the spousal relationship is threatened because of the black woman. In both cases the women are targets of sexual/murderous desire and therefore defended and “protected” by the white man. The difference being that in incidents we see that Dr. Flint chooses not to budge under his wife’s wishes but instead retains his authority as the man of the house. A position women rarely dared to challenged since this might be compromising for their marriage. In this novel the roles are somewhat flipped, Mr. Compson acknowledges that the position he is putting himself and Nancy in is not something that should be ordained by a proper white family. Much like in incidents Nancy has been a victim of the brainwashing and manipulation like so many other slaves and believes herself to have no worth and she states that, “I aint nothing but a nigger. . . . It aint none of my fault.” (Faulkner, William 1931). Not only has she been told that her position in society is lower than that of a white citizen, she has internalized it to such a degree that she ends up believing that she is in fact, a worthless, black slave.

This point is further reiterated in section two where she is calling to god and she says that, “I aint nothing but a nigger.” (Faulkner, William, 1931). She has been conditioned to a point where she truly believes that god himself has put her into this position, and she chooses to accept it. Section three is where Mr. Compson comes to terms with Nancy being afraid for her life but because of Mrs. Compson he is restrained in the ways in which he can act, for as Mrs. Compson says herself, “I cant have Negroes sleeping in the bedrooms.” (Faulkner, William 1931). 

The Section 5

In section five where Mr. Compson pries Nancy to protect herself by barring the door and turning off the lights, she initially refuses since she is afraid of being trapped within the dark, alone. Just as in incidents where Linda was forced to hide in her grandma’s attic in an attempt to avoid being found by the man chasing her, so too does Nancy attempt to console herself with the situation she is in. The biggest difference being the motivation of the characters themselves.

While Linda finds consolation in the fact that she can free herself by imagining what it would be like returning to the slave farm as opposed to being trapped in the dark loft. Nancy finds comfort in knowing that because her fate is “decided” she no longer needs to run anymore, in fact she has accepted the “fact” that her coffin has been paid for already. In section 6, where her family takes their departure from her “coffin” Quentin seems to recall something Nancy once said, “I just done got tired. . . . I just a nigger. It ain't no fault of mine.” (Faulkner, William 1931).

As we have seen all throughout the novel itself, Nancy’s self-deprecation is eventually what gets the best of her. Instead of fighting up until the last, she chooses to accept her “fate” as it has been assigned to her, not only by the white community, but also by the black. In incidents we see such and inert and bitter fight against the proposed “antagonist” whereas in that evening sun our main character Nancy simply seems to give up and we are therefore left without closure as to what happens next. This reiterates one of the main themes throughout incidents and it shows how we can transfer it over to Faulkner’s short novel.

Perhaps the circumstances, as well as possibilities surrounding Nancy, had she been literate, could have motivated her as it did for Linda (Harriet) to fight for her own survival. But the story of Nancy is not the story of the exceptional, nor the few. The story of Nancy is the story that so many other slaves would have gone through, and experienced, without ever dreaming for the slightest chance of breaking out of the chains. Freedom lies within the knowledge that somehow, or in some way there is the possibility that things might get better.


In conclusion I want to summarize on some of the most important themes that has been analysed in this essay. First of all, the ability to read and write, was not only what allowed some lucky slaves to dream of finding a way out of their shackles, it was perhaps more importantly a way for the repressed blacks to fight back against the established white society in the American south. Through cunning and will, some of the slaves were able to out-manoeuvre and out-think their white masters, and this proved two important points. Number one being the fact that the lies that almost all the slaves of the south had been told where in fact that, lies. It also proved that mentally as well as physically the slaves were in no way less well off than their white counterparts.

This helped in inspiring hope for many of the blacks that were still enslaved at that time. Another important theme throughout both novels is the aspect of family and community between black people. While it is more prevalent in incidents the perspective we get from the young kids in that evening sun is forever important in order to establish how the young and innocent might have perceived their surroundings at an age where you would understand very little. As for Linda in incidents I have underlined time and time again how she was both praised and criticised for choosing to have such a large emphasis on the subject as opposed to her male counterparts.

As for the vilifying and subjugation of blacks in the 18th and 19th century I think that this is where we perhaps find that the two works share the most similarities. It seems unimaginable for one to write neither a fictional nor a biographical story, without depicting some of the horrors that were induced upon black slaves in that time, and insofar as covering the subject with limited to no censoring, you could safely argue that they both succeed in that regard. The sexual and physical abuse that both of the main female characters suffered in their respective literary works, is important to stress since trying to depict slavery, entitles you to actually depict slavery. While Faulkners work is both a beautiful literary work while at the same time being a horrific story, so is Harriet Jacobs story of finally breaking free from her chains by whatever means necessary also a touching, gruesome, brutal and heartfelt story that implies compassion, independence and belief



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