How Harriet Jacobs Reclaimed the Broken Body: Black Suffering, Black Redemption

by CL Nash | July 05, 2021

There is something about “brokenness” which allows us to open our eyes and see God’s express revelation differently. Though we frequently herald historical women and men as exceptional, it is their brokenness which really allows us to relate to them. 

Such is the case with Linda Brent. Born Harriet Jacobs in Edenton, North Carolina, on February 11, 1813, she lived until 1897. She is, perhaps, best known for her 300-page autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In telling her own story, she gave herself the name “Linda Brent,” and identifies the importance of self-naming for people of African descent.1 Most scholars, however, simply identify this name as a pseudonym created to protect her identity as a “runaway slave.”      

Jacobs’s narrative helps us understand both the social and religious brokenness which typified Black female existence in nineteenth century America. The moral apathy of Christians who allowed the violence of enslavement to go unchecked, and the active participation in this institution by others, reminds us that we still need to take up the mantle of accountability.            

In her autobiography, Jacobs analyzes both the internal and external brokenness of Black Christian women through the lens of three key observations: “religion at the South,” sexual violation, and a failed faith that prohibited everyone from functioning within their true humanity due to their complicity with slavery. Yet, it is through facing that sense of shame that reconciliation can truly occur.

Broken Through Religion of the South

In the nineteenth century, American Christianity evaluated women, in large part, based on their piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. Though enslaved Black women were held to these standards alongside White women, they were not provided the same legal protections as White women. Free Black women were also often viewed through this Victorian era lens but, like enslaved women, they were afforded little protection or economic power to demonstrate Christian domesticity through piety, purity, and submission.           
               
In her autobiography Jacobs named this Christianity, laden with double standards, “religion at the South….” This false Christianity allowed church deacons to accept payment to severely beat their enslaved “sisters and brothers” until the floorboards held pools of their dripped blood. “Religion at the South” allowed men to rape or sexually coerce enslaved women with full impunity. It allowed White slave mistresses, who often presented themselves as “delicate,” to engage “with nerves of steel” in the torture of Black women and men.2      

Jacobs knew that this religion failed to live up to the Christian Bible’s standards. She observed this religion accommodating the torture of enslaved people, allowing enslaved women to be raped by White male church leaders, and supporting a racial hierarchy through slavery instead of embracing the liberatory practice of Jesus. In this way, Jacobs identified the failures of this religious system.    

By identifying this contradiction, Jacobs walked a careful tight rope between being both the theologian and practitioner of the faith. Black Christian women in Jacobs’s time desired sexual purity, but most were acutely aware that their bodies could be violated with full impunity by any White man. In this environment, Jacobs advocated for herself as a Christian woman while simultaneously critiquing a Christian culture that forced her to give up the sexual purity she desired and fight for an agency she believed necessary. Jacobs’s experience contradicted Victorian era Christian womanhood as it was for most White women, whose bodies would never be touched except by their husband.  

Nevertheless, Jacobs came to recognize that expressing her own agency and reclaiming her own scarred body helped her reclaim a relationship with God by seeing herself as part of the imago Dei, made in the image of God.

Broken Through Sexual Violation

Through her writing, Harriet Jacobs also critiqued the “religion at the South” for its failure to condemn the brokenness of the Black female body through sexual violation by White men.              

For centuries, Black women have endured violation through American slavocracy and its aftermath, and these atrocities have encouraged many to hate their own bodies. In her book Beloved, Toni Morrison’s fictional character Baby Suggs reminds us that our bodies hold special significance. Though we may have been abused, our bodies are still precious. “Yonder,” says Baby Suggs, “they do not love your flesh…You got to love it, you!”3 Theologian Shawn Copeland summarizes this passage saying that “Baby Suggs prophesies deliverance of body and soul…through passionate love.”4               
               
In telling her story, Jacobs presented her body as part of the very text that White Christian women would read and evaluate, judge and possibly dismiss as a text of shame. But for Jacobs herself, her body moved beyond being a symbol of shame to a symbol of grace.          

Jacobs also revealed to her readers the repeated sexual advances of the man who enslaved her as an adult, who she called Dr. Flint. When she refused him, he threatened to bring her children, who lived on a different plantation, to his plantation to be “broken in” to force her compliance to his advances. But instead of giving in, she escaped and hid in her grandmother’s attic for seven years. During that time, she bargained with their White father to ensure he would purchase their children and send them to the North as free citizens.5      

Rather than submit to her slave holder, she escaped. In this way, Jacobs showed love to her body by creating a bodily autonomy that was rare for nineteenth century American women. Just like Baby Suggs, who spoke through a liturgy encouraging violated and traumatized persons of African descent not to look upon their bodies as shameful, Jacobs also learned to value and love her own body, and she acted on its behalf. Love is the antidote to shame.

Jacobs did not choose an “either/or” approach to her faith and her agency but a “both/and.” She accepted the Christian mandate for sexual purity when she told her readers “I know I did wrong” by taking a White male lover. Yet she criticized the double standards and purity codes of her time and stood outside of their prescripts with her rebuke that “the slave woman ought not be judged by the same standards” as free White women.6

Broken Through Failed Faith

For theologians, theodicy asks, “How could an all-powerful and good God allow unmerited suffering and evil to exist?” Perhaps no other episode of human history represents suffering and evil more acutely than American slavocracy. While proclaiming themselves Christian, enslavers failed to be transformed by the compassion and love of the Christian gospel. For Jacobs, this represents both a bodily and spiritual brokenness, what she called a “failure in faith” of those complicit within the system of slavery.      

This failure of faith manifested itself in the complex social system of Jacobs’s time. The gender hierarchy of the nineteenth century created inequity for White women, but the temptation of shared power between White women and men over Black women and men also created a situation where White women often perceived Black women as their enemies and not their allies in the struggle against inequity. This implicated some of the White women in Harriet’s life within the failure of faith she identifies.

Jacobs’s childhood mistress, for example, had verbally promised Jacobs her freedom upon her death. However, when the mistress died, Jacobs was not freed as promised. Jacobs reacted to this cruelty saying,

But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice.

It was this inability to see the Black people around them as neighbors in Christ that, in Jacobs’s mind, allowed her slave mistress and others to perpetuate the system of chattel slavery, demonstrating failed faith.              

In addition, Jacobs considered Dr. Flint’s wife to be a person who also participated in the brokenness of Black women’s bodies, even though she was a woman with limited autonomy herself. Jacobs carefully juxtaposed how Flint’s wife presented herself as a “delicate lady” against how she ordered mutilating punishments for the enslaved people under her without flinching.        

In another instance, Jacobs told a story of a White slave mistress who had a Black girl, who was raped at age ten, hoisted up and severely beaten for her “transgression” over a period of several days. She would not budge when many enslaved people came to beg for mercy on behalf of the girl.           

It was a failed faith which enabled Dr. Flint to sexually pursue Jacobs, a youth forty years his junior. It was failed faith which gave Mrs. Flint no regard for those being tortured. Failed faith allowed Jacobs’s childhood mistress to ignore her promise to grant her freedom. These failings point to a religion which privileged racial hierarchy over integrity, false promises of stolen labor over the power of a transformative gospel. But Jacobs doesn’t describe her own brokenness in isolation. Rather, she demonstrated how each person who participated in slavery was burdened by its vices—both Black and White, male and female.

Healing in Christ

When writing her narrative, Jacobs spoke at length about God’s forgiveness for her own sense of transgression, not adhering to the purity codes of her time. Though her response was to protect her body and claim possession of her own body and reproductive organs, she also realized her attempts were not in keeping with the standards of Christian purity set forth for women in her time. Yet she bore both the inward scars of disappointment in those who espoused Christianity and the outward scars of the choices she was compelled to make.    
               
After Jacobs escaped to the North, she found employment with Mr. and Mrs. Bruce. When Mrs. Bruce died, Mr. Bruce wanted to take his daughter, Mary, to visit his family in England. He employed Jacobs to “take charge” of his young daughter for the trip. It was during this trip that she began to re-evaluate her own relationship with God and the Christian gospel. Though she considered the Episcopal Church in the US a “mockery and a sham” due to its participation in slavery, her experience in England was quite different. She stated,

But my home in Steventon was in the family of a clergyman, who was a true disciple of Jesus. The beauty of his daily life inspired me with faith and genuineness of Christian professions. Grace entered my heart, and I knelt at the communion table, I trust, in true humility of soul.8

It was this “humility of soul” that Jacobs used to describe her ability to experience the presence of Christ. This was despite the “religion at the South” that participated in the cruel system of slavery, despite the violation, despite the failure of faith. Much like Malcolm X whose trip to Mecca gave him a perspective that allowed him to alter his own lens about the possibility of racial reconciliation, Jacobs had a religious experience abroad through witnessing this “true disciple of Jesus.” She accepted Jesus as Lord. In this way, her experience is instructive.

Jacobs endured genuine violations which provided a brokenness to both her body and spirit. She did not deserve the pain that she bore. In her autobiography, she appealed to an audience of northern, White Christian women who would never have understood the peculiarities of slavery that she endured. Yet, the truth of being a Christian woman, for this historical Black woman, was being able to seek healing in the true message of Jesus as shared by those whose lives emulated him. In living abroad, Jacobs glimpsed God’s divine love in her new and true Christian friends—and she celebrated it in herself.

It is in Harriet Jacobs’s brokenness that we see Christ anew.



This article appears in “Learning Lament, Building Empathy, and Joining our Sisters at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” the Summer 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

1. Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. L Maria Child (Boston, 1861), accessed 6/25/2021, 6. Jacobs describes her understanding of naming her own child. When her baby was to be christened, she was advised of the surname she must give the baby. “I added the surname of my father, who had himself not legal right to it; for my grandfather on the paternal side was a White gentleman. What tangled skeins are the genealogies of slavery! I loved my father; but it mortified me to be obliged to bestow his name on my children” (121).

2. Linda Brent, Incidents, 115.

3. Toni Morrison, Beloved, (New York: Random House, 1987), 88.

4. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race and Being, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 52.

5. Brent, Incidents, 85.

6. Brent, Incidents, 86.

7. Brent, Incidents, 16.

8. Brent, Incidents, 278.