Life Trajectories of White and Black Women
Kristen Merlo L-SAW 2009
I once saw two beautiful children
playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also
her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter,
I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that
would fall on the little slave's heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be
changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From
childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by
a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on
her happy bridal morning.
How had those years dealt with her slave
sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful;
but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of
sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink"
Harriet Jacobs shares many stories throughout the course of her narrative, Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl, she does not share for simply anecdotal
reasons. Rather, Jacobs offers the many "incidents" of her personal story with
intent to enrage and to enlighten, as she exposes the inescapable truths of
slavery. Jacobs identifies her target audience in the Preface of her work,
do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of
the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage,
suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my
testimony to that of abler pens to convince people of the Free States what
slavery really is. (440)
composes a narrative which effectively connects many microscopic moments and
offers a profound analysis of slavery as a highly-organized system of
oppression. In particular, she is concerned with the plight of black women, and
focuses upon the inevitable truths of their futures. For instance, Jacobs
offers a moving parable of the relationship between white and black girls which
examines their girlhood interactions as a sharp contrast to their life
trajectories and experiences of womanhood. Looking on as an outsider, Jacobs
observes the apparent equality and feeling of mutuality between these girls as
they play at a young age, but finds herself "turning sadly away," realizing the
certainty of an oppressed future dictated by slavery (473).
close reading of this passage presents the reader with valuable insight into
Jacobs's thoughts regarding the omnipresence of slavery and the challenges of
growing up as a black girl. Jacobs has meticulously chosen each of her words,
resulting in the composition of a parable which offers a multifaceted analysis
of the differences in the life trajectories of white and black women.
Aesthetic quality and physical movement play an
important role in the parable, as Jacobs begins: "I once saw two beautiful
children playing together …" (472). The author immediately emphasizes external,
physical beauty, which becomes an important theme. One of the girls is
described almost redundantly as a "fair white child" (472). Certainly her
complexion and status as a white girl are stressed, but use of the word "fair"
also suggests her being "of character, conduct, reputation: free from moral
stain, spotless, unblemished" (OED). Immediately, this "fair white
child" is set up for social success, as her light complexion is paralleled by
her unblemished character. Her beauty and skin-associated morality are further
defined as she matures – "The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman"
(473). There is a direct correlation between the fair white girl's beauty and
her status as a bride at the conclusion of the parable.
Though "She [the black girl], also, was very
beautiful," the young black girl's version of the story does not have the same
fairy-tale ending. Jacobs uses this parable to examine the different
implications of beauty in the lives of young white girls versus young black
girls. While an attractive white girl is destined for success by fulfilling her
social role as a beautiful bride, an attractive black girl faces a life of pain
and guilt via the potentiality of sexual exploitation. The white woman's "happy
bridal morning" is juxtaposed against the black woman's experience. Beauty is a
curse for the young black girl, existing as yet another aspect of her life
which she cannot control. Jacobs explains, "She [the black girl] drank the cup
of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to
drink" (473). Through this sentence, Jacobs simply and powerfully explains the
connection between a black woman's physical beauty and her feelings of guilt.
The first half of the sentence describes a girl drinking from the cup – which
suggests voluntary action. However, the sentence concludes with the recognition
that this "cup of sin, and shame, and misery" is not a choice at all, but
rather is an obligatory action of the "persecuted race" (473).
Jacobs recognizes the characteristic dichotomy
of beauty – as both a blessing and a curse. Society's unequal ideologies are
blatantly exposed – a white woman's beauty leads to her success, while a black
woman's beauty leads to her downfall. Furthermore, the corruption lies in the
fact that black women are made to feel guilty for the implications that are
associated with their beauty. All too often, the distinction is not made
between those who "drink the cup of sin," and those who "are compelled to
drink" (473). It is exactly here where slavery gains its power of systematic oppression.
Society places a value in beauty - something that both white and black possess
– yet only accepts it when presented by the dominant race. Thus, for every
beautiful white girl, white society takes one step forward; and for every
beautiful black girl, black society is pushed one step further behind. The
intentional widening of the gap between black and white is fundamental to the
cultivation of a divided society.
In the very first sentence of the parable, Jacobs
complements the emphasized beauty by use of the three-word phrase "children
playing together," suggesting a sense of innocence and purity, lightheartedness
and fun, as well as interaction and mutuality. There is a physical component of
the girls' relationship, as they are described to be "embracing each other,"
which acknowledges positive human touch between white and black. The embrace
demonstrates love, as well as recognition of the humanity which the two girls
share. All too often, blacks are dehumanized and described as lacking emotion and
compassion. Here, Jacobs deters such ideas via the emotional embrace of the
white girl and the black girl.
The fact that they are "playing together" and
"embracing" is demonstrative of the lacking dominance in the relationship
between the two girls. Jacobs describes their potentially conflicting roles –
"One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister"
(472). Due primarily to the sexual exploitation of black women by white men,
there are many historical accounts of a black child being both the slave and
the sister of her white counterpart. Undoubtedly, this sets the stage for a
confusing relationship between the two. On one hand, slavery demands dominance,
whereas sisterhood is characterized by equality. At this young age, the two
girls act as sisters – yet Jacobs still chooses to place a stress upon white possession:
"her slave" and "her sister" (472).
Though it begins as a lighthearted and innocent
account of interracial friendship, Jacobs's parable quickly takes a dark turn.
She describes her actions as an observer through a powerful tripartite
progression: "I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the
inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's heart. I knew how
soon her laughter would be changed to sighs" (473). She builds up her emotions
as an outside viewer, as she recognizes the future of the little slave. Despite
the "lovely sight" and "joyous laughter" of these two young girls playing
together, Jacobs is forced to turn away, for she cannot even bear to watch
(472-73). There is a feeling of powerlessness on the part of Jacobs, the
observer, as she turns sadly away and realizes the overbearing role that
slavery continues to play.
With increasing certainty, Jacobs states that
she "foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's
heart" (473). The Oxford English Dictionary defines blight in terms of
botany as "any baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin, that
suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants, affects them with disease, arrests
their growth, or prevents their blossom from 'setting'; a diseased state of
plants of unknown or assumed atmospheric origin" (OED). Indeed, this
imagery associated with plant growth and the deterioration of living things has
been carefully selected by Jacobs. The "inevitable blight" comes from an
"invisible origin," yet has profound, identifiable effects. In other words, the
intangible notion of slavery becomes increasingly tangible upon the observance
of a young black girl's degraded status. Blight refers to a diseased state –
not simply a hardship to overcome. Likewise, the young black girl lives within
the regime of slavery, a system which permeates all aspects of her life. The
inevitability of the situation is further enhanced by the idea of such blight
"falling on the little slave's heart" (473). Just as gravity always wins,
Jacobs deems this "falling" to be seemingly predictable.
In the third part of Jacobs's observer
progression, she asserts even greater certainty, stating that she "knew
how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs" (473). As an older black
woman, Jacobs looks to this young black girl and knows what the future will
hold. The certainty with which she asserts this change from laughter to sighs
is unnerving, as is the impending future. Essentially, as the young black girl
matures, her life will change from one of laughter to one of sighs; whereas the
young white girl's will progress from one of laughter to one of an assured
In her parable which ultimately examines the
differences in the life trajectories of young white women versus young black
women, Jacobs effectively utilizes the idea of maturation as a natural process.
She first establishes the two girls as common and sharing in universality of
the human experience. Upon adolescence, however, the commonality of the girls
is usurped, as Jacobs explains their progression from girlhood to womanhood,
identifying the profound differences between them. Described in terms of
"pathways," Jacobs suggests a sense of the process as systematically predetermined:
"From childhood to womanhood her [the white girl's] pathway was blooming with
flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky" (473). In contrast, despite the black
girl's beauty, "the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her" (473). The
idea of the white girl's "blooming pathway" effectively contrasts the
"inevitable blight" of the black girl. Despite their common beginnings and
statuses as young girls, the process of natural maturation is presented as predetermined
and bidirectional. In nature, or a world not yet mangled by mankind's greed,
both girls would mature in a similar fashion. Jacobs distinguishes between the
natural and the unnatural progression from girlhood to womanhood. While one's
path blooms, the other is blighted – with slavery as a system of economic
exploitation dictating both fates.
Repeatedly, Jacobs emphasizes the powerlessness
of the young black girl in her life trajectory. Specifically, she poses the
question "How had those years dealt with her [the white girl's] slave sister,
the little playmate of her childhood?" (473). The young black girl does not
have the opportunity to "deal" with the years; rather, they deal with her.
Though superficially a story of two girls' lives, this parable presents a
profound analysis of the racial differentiation of lifetimes. Jacobs elegantly
offers an understanding of the past, present, and future, as she identifies the
unjust role that slavery plays in the determination of a black woman's fate.
Initially struck by the beauty and simplicity
of this passage, I found myself reading it again and again in attempts to
understand the thoughts that Jacobs presents on the idea of a woman's destiny. She
establishes a personal connection with the reader, as she unifies the reader
with the characters via an understanding of growing up. Jacobs explicitly
suggests that the life trajectory of a beautiful white woman is to become a
beautiful white bride, while the life trajectory of a beautiful black woman is
one of sin, shame, and misery. Both of these ultimate roles are necessary in
the male–dominated slaveholding society of the 1800's. Notably, these two
ultimate roles are also fundamental to the functioning of today's society. Particularly,
there is a carefully calculated interplay between the two – as the beautiful
white woman's successes further degrade the beautiful black woman, and the
beautiful black woman's failures further elevate the status of the beautiful
This is where slavery emerges as a highly–organized
system of oppression. In the natural world, both women would grow up and pursue
their life trajectories as dictated by the natural environment – finding food,
shelter, and a mate. However, slavery has interfered with the natural order of
womanhood by dictating that some woman be oppressed due simply to the color of
their skin. Every aspect of slavery has been established as an intentional
method of oppression. As a young white woman, I often recognize my "pathway
blooming with flowers and overarched by a sunny sky," but never before had
considered the system which has presented me with such an easy–to–follow life
trajectory (473). Growing up in an upper–middle class Boston suburb, attending
a top university, and hoping eventually to be on my way to a "happy bridal
morning," I experience an indescribable sense of guilt when rereading Jacobs's
parable (473). Slavery as a system of economic exploitation has set me up for socially–determined
success and has successfully permeated the current American lifestyle to the
point where its well–established systems of oppression fail to be recognized. Relentlessly
manipulated by the economic interests of white men, the life trajectories of
black and white woman continue to suffer.
Jacobs writes to the women of the North in 1861
attempting to explain the unjust and "inevitable blight" of young black women;
yet, in 2008, has much changed? Though Lehigh's predominantly white student
population may not necessarily define a woman's success by her bridal status,
there still exists an undeniable feeling of this pathway "overarched by a sunny
sky" (473). Perhaps best described as a feeling of entitlement, the student
population of Lehigh University seems to demand – and receive – these sunny
skies. As we bask in this sunshine and stroll along our predetermined pathway,
there are many women who are far more capable, driven, and determined – but who
have been told that "the flowers of sunshine and love" are not for them. Jacobs
has identified the power of slavery as a system which has long since been
seeping into the understanding of an American woman's life trajectory –
predominantly based upon her status as slave or as sister.
from "Chapter V. The Trials of Girlhood" (Incidents in the Life of a Slave
Girl by Harriet Jacobs):
once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child;
the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each
other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely
sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's
heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child
grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was
blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her
life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.
had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her
childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love
were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her
persecuted race are compelled to drink (472-73).
n." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online.
Oxford University Press. 16 Oct. 2008.
a." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online.
Oxford University Press. 16 Oct. 2008.
Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Classic Slave Narratives.
Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
New York: Signet Classics, 1987. 472-73.