¶ … life of slaves in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the lives of the mentally ill in Victor LaValle's Devil in Silver
The theme of freedom and escape was common in antebellum literature written by former slaves -- and is also common in narratives of the lives of the mentally ill today. Both Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl and Victor LaValle's Devil in Silver chronicle unjust imprisonments: in Jacob's case, the narrator's life as a slave; in LaValle's novel, the horrors perpetrated upon the mentally ill. These texts indicate that those who are marginalized in our society are selected in an arbitrary fashion based upon categories such as race or class rather than have intrinsic properties that make them uniquely different. Over the course of the narrative, both protagonists overcome the societies of fear and tyranny that are created by their oppressors and liberate themselves physically and spiritually from their bonds.
Jacobs memoir relates her life in bondage and finally in freedom. She was born to a relatively kind mistress and looks back upon her early years with fondness. However, her mistress died and willed Jacobs to a young girl, making Jacobs' effectual master a hard, cruel man named Mr. Flint. Jacobs relates the capricious life of a slave, whose existence is entirely dependent upon the person into whose hands he or she is sold. "To the slave mother New Year's day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother's instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother's agonies" (Jacobs 26). Jacobs states that slaves are not inferior beings intrinsically, but the state of...
Yet still, human feelings exist -- one of the cruelest aspects of slavery is the fact that mothers are separated from their children.
Similarly, LaValle's novel about a man named Pepper who is unjustly committed to a mental institution portrays a world in which people are arbitrarily declared sane or insane. Pepper is not mentally ill but given he is transient, large, and somewhat threatening in his appearance, committing him becomes a way for law enforcement agents to deal with him. Once committed and labeled insane, he finds it virtually impossible to shirk that label. The institution uses powerful psychotropic drugs to control the inmates and regardless of their mental state before admission, they are damaged beings after a certain point -- like slaves -- by virtue of being subject to this regime. "In general, people thought he took up too much room on the subway and often sighed and grunted to let him know. His only benefit to this great mass was that he could lift heavy things" (LaValle 20). Pepper looks intimidating, which results in his getting labeled, much like Jacobs is labeled as inferior because of her race and like all African-Americans enslaved during the antebellum period, she must fight every day to preserve her dignity.
Jacobs' plight is rendered particularly harsh by virtue of being a woman. She is continually subjected to the unwanted advances of Dr. Flint, who calls her ungrateful when she resists. "If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave (Jacobs 46). Jacobs falls in love with a free-born man but Dr. Flint refuses to allow anyone to buy Harriet's freedom. "For a fortnight the doctor did not speak to me. He thought to mortify me; to make me feel that I had disgraced myself by receiving the honorable addresses of a respectable colored man, in preference to the base proposals of a white man" (Jacobs 63). Jacobs has no control over her destiny or her body because she is a slave. Moreover, Dr. Flint believes that she should be grateful for his attentions because…
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