Comparing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Time

Real writing, soul writing is dangerous; there is an intrinsic, gut-churning element of risk within the process of telling the truth, a risk that yields an adrenaline rush that parallels skydiving and skinny-dipping. The thrill of one's own truth displayed nakedly in little black letters on a white page is scary and beautiful, both chaining and freeing. The issue for authors, like skydivers, is that after they jump out of the plane (start writing) the fears don't disappear.

The diver-author asks herself, "Should I really be doing this... What if my parachute doesn't work... What if I'm misunderstood?" Harriet Jacobs and John Edgar Wideman undergo this free-fall, these fears. In the telling of their stories, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs) and Our Time (Wideman), each author is self-conscious. Both authors tell about a minority in their stories; Jacobs speaks of the female slave and Wideman speaks of the African-American gangster.

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Because they tell the story of a minority to a majority, they can't afford to be misunderstood. They also can't afford to write solely in metaphors because they not only must prove their competence through reserved analysis but also must appeal to the hearts and minds of their audience. 

The authors must bring middle class white readers as close to the slave plantation or the Ghetto or the prison cell as possible. For this reason, both authors refer to the reader with questions. This rhetorical device forces the reader to place herself in the situation of the main character. For example, when discussing the abuse she took from her master, Dr. flint, Jacobs asks, "But where could I turn for protection?"(477).

Jacobs needs to make the reader understand that the rules that hold true for us (i.e. I can call the police, or get a divorce...) didn't apply to her. She needs to make it clear that she wasn't weak but just lacked any other option because, while it seems so clear to us as readers in the 1990s, the same assumptions would probably not have been made in the 1800s. But Jacobs is not only making this point clear to the reader; she is making it clear to herself. In writing her story, Jacobs comes to terms with herself. 

Wideman similarly employs the use of the question. While struggling with the issue of telling his brother's story without making it his own, he asks the reader a string of questions: "And if I did learn to listen, wouldn't there be a point at which I'd have to take over the telling? Wasn't there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, on escape? Wasn't another person's skin a hiding place, a place to work out anxiety, to face threats too intimidating to handle in any other fashion? Wasn't writing about people a way of exploiting them?"(722).

Wideman, uncomfortable with his relationship between his brother, the text, and himself, makes his plight obvious in order to receive affirmation from the reader who is forced to ask herself what she would do. The question, in this case, is an extremely effective rhetorical device because the answer, being obviously split, makes the reader feel the same dichotomy with which the writer struggles. The bombardment of questions delivers the reader into a state of confusion and frustration similar to that of Wideman during the interview.

While it is inevitable that the story, being a product of the author, must incorporate the author herself, the story remains as the fundamental structure. This exquisite plight exists in all forms of art. For example, an artist painting a landscape produces her interpretation of the scene; there is no way to get around this. But the product is still the scene. And the scene must be painted. Robbie's story must be told. 

Jacobs similarly suspends the reader in confusion through lists of questions. She says, "But why, thought I, did my relatives ever cherish hopes for me? What was there to save me from the usual fate of slave girls? Many more beautiful and more intelligent than I had experienced a similar fate, or a far worse one. How could they hope that I should escape?"(494). The reader here, as in Our Time, is thus forced to struggle the struggle the author has. 

Jacobs occasionally places the reader in her own situation through declarative statements. This rhetorical method is vital to the story because it's too easy for the reader to separate herself from the test, too easy to say, "Oh, well, wasn't that horrible," but not really try to feel the pain, too easy to justify it all. Jacobs throws the reader into the savage heart of slavery when she says, "Could you have seen that mother clinging to her child, when they fastened the irons upon his wrists; could you have heard her hear-rending groans, and seen her bloodshot eyes wander wildly from face to face, vainly pleading for mercy; could you have witnessed that scene as I saw it, you would exclaim, Slavery is damnable!"(474).

By providing the mother-losing-her-child image, Jacobs appeals to women. Through this common tie, Jacobs shows that slaves feel just as deeply as whites. In another instance, Jacobs directly compares herself to the free, white woman. She says, "But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice..."(489).

Jacobs thus suggests that all women, regardless of race, are alike at birth, the only difference being the contrasting courses of their lives. She forces white women to imagine what it would feel like, forces us to take the horrors of slavery from the distance and internalize them. 

Wideman achieves the same goal through a different rhetorical device: analysis. Analysis allies Wideman with his educated audience. It separates him from his convict-brother. Wideman is aware of this and alludes to it being an issue present since childhood. He says, after describing Robby, "But the image I'm creating is a trick of glass. The mirror that would swallow Robby and then chime to me: You're the fairest of them all"(730).

Again, Wideman is split between the desire to find similarity between his brother and him and the desire to point out an inherent difference that sets him above. This is evident in the massive change of tone when he switches voices: as himself he speaks in the voice of the scholar; as Robby he speaks in the voice of the gangster. This variation is effective because Wideman writes for scholars, not gangsters. 

Both essays end unresolved, not because the authors are incompetent, but because the issues that they write about don't have resolutions. The readers are left with the same frustration as the authors. Past can't be erased, roles can't be traded, and sympathy can't be transformed into empathy. But the sheer act of writing and publishing their stories is a resolution. While to jump off the plane is terrifying, and wind stings the face as one falls, once on the ground the writer can find resolution purely in the explanation itself, even if it ends unresolved. 

Works Cited 

Jacobs, Harriet.  "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."  The Classic Slave Narratives.  Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  New York: Mentor, 1987. 

Wideman, John Edgar. "Our Time" excerpted in Ways of Reading (4th edition), David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996).

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