Incidents in the Life
Of a Slave Girl
Written by

Harriet Jacobs

The world of "slave" and "master" is such a strange one. Can you imagine: you are owned by the master. He can do with you as he wants: he can be kind to you, or he can make you work twelve hours a day, beat you. He can sell you any time he wants. He can steal your children from you and sell them, too. He can force you to any act he may conceive. You belong to him and him alone.

And if you try to escape, he can rouse the whole town, indeed, call on bounty-hunters up and down the coast to find you, pay them to bring you home. When you are returned to him, he can lock you up, or flog you, and rub salt water in the wounds. You are his. You are not you: you are his chattel.

Harriet Jacobs --- who lived with the slave name of "Linda" --- tells us that she was fortunate.

    I was never cruelly over-worked; I was never lacerated with the whip from head to foot; I was never so beaten and bruised that I could not turn from one side to the other; I never had my heel-strings cut to prevent my running away; I was never chained to a log and forced to drag it about, while I toiled in the fields from morning to night; I was never branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds.

In telling us what had not happened to her, she is, in a forceful way, telling us the atrocity of a system in which men, women, and children were bought and sold like pigs. Furthermore --- as Foucault would have it --- slavery was sexual politics at its worst. And Linda knew that truth at first hand.

Starting at age thirteen, she was stalked by her master, a Dr. Flint --- great name! --- and he was merciless. For eight years, he demanded sexual favors from her --- and when she did not permit him to have his way with her, he cursed her, upbraided her, insulted her, harassed her, hit her, and told her over and over again, that if she did not submit, she would be turned over to a slave trader. When she finally was made pregnant by another white --- a member of Congress --- Flint told her that her children belonged to him, and if she did not give her body to him, he would sell the children to a slave-trader, as he was free to do.

Jacob's book was a powerful tool for the abolitionists. It was published in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. It was the first anti-slavery treatise to be written by a black, with no editor, nor intermediary (all slaves were prohibited from learning reading and writing, for that would give them knowledge, which would of course lead to their desire for freedom. Jacobs painfully taught herself to read when she was in hiding from her master.)

Because her story is concentrated, as it were, on the maidenhead, it showed Americans for the first time that the ownership of humans was not only an economic/labor system, it had direct sexual overtones. That "peculiar institution" had emasculated black men --- thus, it was a simple matter for white slave masters to work their will with their women. It was a potent sexual power which gained its power by the fact that America in 1840 was a Puritan society. Thus, the most salient aspect of man-owning-woman was never ever talked about, especially since it required crossing forbidden racial barriers. It was not to be talked about; it was not to be thought about. It prospered in the darkest cellars of the soul.

A hundred years before Jacobs' story was printed, Samuel Richardson had produced several novels telling of 18th century women who were hounded (in most cases, hounded to death) by men of exceptional persistence. What we have here is the inter-racial equivalent of a Samuel Richardson novel, in which every trick imaginable is used in the good doctor's attempts to have her.

Jacobs reveals how lust poisons all relationships. The pursuit of her tortured her mightily and poisoned her youth. Doctor Flint's wife, who had once been kindly, turned chill and cruel ---not to him, but to her --- when she figured out the reasons for her husband's intense attention to the little slave girl.

§     §     §

The pursuit is only part of the story. There is the daily life in a slave community. There are the regular hunts for escaped slaves. There are the floggings. There are the murders; there are suicides of slaves. There is a stunning description of the immediate effects of Nat Turner's rebellion --- in which Jacob's village is invaded by an army of white thugs who search houses, beat and flog innocent blacks --- men, women, and children.

There are, as well, incidents of a shy humor. This is a description of white men of the cloth --- Southern Baptists --- and their exhortations to the slaves to be good children:

    You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master --- your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master.

As the author says, "We went home, highly amused at brother Pike's gospel teaching, and we determined to hear him again."

Jacob's going into hiding to protect herself from Flint's persistence tells of months after months in a tiny room where she could neither stand up nor move around. It reminds us of nothing less than The Diary of Ann Frank --- and has the same mix of fear and boredom and pain from being in a cramped place, unable to breathe, unable to walk in the gardens, to see the sunlight.

Jacob's book was powerful ammunition in the hands of the anti-slavery forces and even now, a hundred and fifty years later, is still haunting. With its tales of power and ownership and lust, it reminds us no less than tales out of the ghettos --- convincing us that for three hundred years, the United States had its own form of militant tyranny, where the masters could take masochistic pleasure in cruelly abusing the young and the innocent minority --- all the while, pretending that they were merely following the laws of a harsh but just divine.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

The Crystal and
The Way of Light

<Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
John Shane, Editor

(Snow Lion)
The way of Dzogchen tells us that we function on three independent levels: body, voice (or energy), and mind.

We all know of our body --- heat, cold, hunger, and pain remind us of its existence. The second is energy, which, under Dzogchen theory, cannot be seen (it's familiar to some of us who have had acupuncture).

Certain illnesses are caused "by disturbances of the energy, and cannot be cured simply by surgery or medication." Mind is affected by the voice --- and some mental illnesses, according to the author, are caused by a "poor circulation" of energy.

The author is at pains to point out that Dzogchen is not peculiar to Tibet, or to his culture, or even to our world.

    It can be found in thirteen solar systems other than our own, so we can't even say that Dzogchen teaching belongs to this planet Earth, much less to any particular national culture...[it] has no nationality and is omnipresent.

The perfected state of Body, Voice and Mind is symbolized by the three Tibetan syllables,

  • Om,
  • Ah,and
  • Hum.
Body is the "whole material dimension of the individual," while Voice is the "vital energy of the body" (also known as prana.) Mind includes "the mind that reasons, and the nature of the mind, which is not subject to the limits of the intellect." Thus, for many of us, any one or all of the three --- mind, voice, body --- may be out of kilter. This brings a fateful dualism which forces one into a world of limits, making us "like a bird in a cage." If you can figure out what I'm talking about, then your mind is in far better shape than mine.

Dualism, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu explains, means that we live our lives "inside out." We see the "I" as absolutely separate, living through a world that we see as "external." All turns to pain as we try "to manipulate that world in order to achieve satisfaction," which only creates "lack, fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction." Those who have managed to discover the true condition are said to have achieved "pure vision."

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu's writings can be heavy going at times. For instance,

    Limitless, formless Dang energy, the correct understanding of which is the Dharmakaya, manifests on the level of the essence of the elements, which is light, as the nonmaterial forms of the Rolpu energy, the correct understanding of which is the Sambhogakaya, which can only be perceived by those having visionary clarity.

Still, he makes up for this spaghetti of technical words with some wonderfully eccentric tales of the meeting of masters in Tibet. My favorite concerned "The Lunatic," who, many years ago, the writer --- along with his uncle --- went to visit. It took them fifteen hard days to get to the cave, but then they were told by the villagers that the guru threw stones at visitors, and had wild dogs to attack them.

    When we finally arrived at the very peak of the mountain, we saw a kind of rudimentary stone structure. You couldn't really call it a house, it was more like a big dog kennel...[The master] saw us approaching, so he at once pretended to be asleep, pulling the blanket up over his head. When we got quite close we waited a few minutes and then he suddenly pulled the blanket away from his face and looked at us. His enormous starting eyes were bloodshot and his hair stood wildly on end. I found him really terrifying. He began to speak, but we couldn't understand what he was saying, even though he was a Tibetan like us.

Finally the young Norbu went into the shack, and offered a packet of biscuits to the master, who put them in a pot that was "full of water, but also contained a bit of everything, some tobacco, some peppers, and my uncle's sweet, together with my biscuit." He then says,

    I stayed a little longer taking all this in, until with a ferocious look the master gave me a sort of half broken earthenware teapot which he used as a piss-pot.

He pointed off to the west and said, "rather angrily and quite coherently, 'Better to go!'" So Norbu and his uncle walked in the direction indicated, over several peaks, until they found a hunter who had fallen and broken his foot. They carried him home, and then returned to the master. "Perhaps he'll give us some teaching now," they thought.

    But when we got back to the strange master's hut, far from saying anything like, "Well done!", he just told us to go away.

--- Carlos Amantea

Fiction and

Jacques Derrida
Elizabeth Rottenberg,

This Derrida gets stranger and stranger. What he gives us here is a hundred page exegesis on a short, very short (three pages, about 900 words) tale written by Maurice Blanchot. The story has to do with a day in 1944 during the occupation of France, when the Nazis came to search a Château. There was a possibility that they would shoot all the inhabitants. For some reason, the house was not burned, no one was shot, and the tale ends,

    There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive. No, you are dead."

OK. So he's alive, or dead, or a survivor of a true near-death experience. For some peculiar reason, Derrida is inspired by this short tale, bringing together what the editors call "two of the great pioneers in contemporary thought." And so he goes on and on, for a hundred pages. It's verbosity reminds me of those tests we had in English II where we were to expound for an hour on a thirty word poem by Emily Dickinson

    Ample make this Bed ---
    Make this bed with Awe ---
    In it wait till Judgment break
    Excellent and Fair.

    Be its Mattress straight ---
    Be its Pillow round ---
    Let no Sunrise' yellow noise ---
    Interrupt this Ground ---

Und so weiter. Here is Derrida on the sentence "I remember a young man..."

    This passage to a "he," in the third person, the young man, of course signifies the discretion of the literary process, the ellipsis of someone who is not going to put himself forward and expose himself indiscreetly.

Right you are if you think you are, as Pirandello said. There is then an intense discussion of the line, "The lieutenant...distinctly shouted: 'This is what you have come to.'"

    Accusation and trial. What becomes of the witness, or rather the narrator, who is here the witness for the witness? No one testifies for the witness, says Celan. Here the narrator testifies for the witness, that is, for the young man. The witness for the witness, the narrator, testifies first for an accused. The latter will be condemned to death, but first he is accused. The narrator must testify to a fundamental accusation, already to a verdict that leads to death. "This is what you have come to."

Pshaw! as my granny would say. Why use a mouthful of words when you can spit it all out in one or two? But I suppose these philosophers occupy a different world. Where words mean other than words, unless they mean the same, or neither.

It's not a total loss, however. In an appendix, Derrida takes up a letter sent to the Times Literary Supplement --- referring to an allusion he made to "Curtius, more than thirty years ago in De la grammatologie." Is he livid! Is he beside himself! Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth!

    Should one respond to hate-filled gesticulations when they proceed with such worrisome signs of ignorance or obscurantism. Should one respond in a journal that seems to make these rantings against me a sort of specialty.

A specialty of attacks on Jacques Derrida! For what? "They have declared war," he says, "on my work, on my person, and on those who refer to them."

Well, there you go. Africa is dying from AIDS. They're murdering folks in Bosnia. The world is dissolving under the assault of hydrocarbons. You and I will drown when, sometime in the near future, we get out of bed to find that the ocean has come a-lapping at our doors. And still, we must defend the use of "Curtius" --- give vent to a full-throated attack on the TLS as a "strange journal."

    When I do not happen upon these attacks in an airport...I am only informed of them long after, indirectly, thanks to worried or indignant friends.

Thank the lord for worried and indignant friends. And strange, attacking journals. Where would we be if it weren't for these brutish attacks on my work, and my person? Attacks to divert us, thank the lord, from the paltry troubles of a world, gone mad and wrong.

--- Lolita Lark

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up