Chapter VIII

What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North

SLAVEHOLDERS PRIDE THEMSELVES upon being honorable men; but if you were to hear the enormous lies they tell their slaves, you would have small respect for their veracity. I have spoken plain English. Pardon me. I cannot use a milder term. When they visit the north, and return home, they tell their slaves of the runaways they have seen, and describe them to be in the most deplorable condition. A slaveholder once told me that he had seen a runaway friend of mine in New York, and that she besought him to take her back to her master, for she was literally dying of starvation; that many days she had only one cold potato to eat, and at other times could get nothing at all. He said he refused to take her, because he knew her master would not thank him for bringing such a miserable wretch to his house. He ended by saying to me, “This is the punishment she brought on herself for running away from a kind master.”

This whole story was false. I afterwards staid with that friend in New York, and found her in comfortable circumstances. She had never thought of such a thing as wishing to go back to slavery. Many of the slaves believe such stories, and think it is not worth while to exchange slavery for such a hard kind of freedom. It is difficult to persuade such that freedom could make them useful men, and enable them to protect their wives and children. If those heathen in our Christian land had as much teaching as some Hindoos, they would think otherwise. They would know that liberty is more valuable than life. They would begin to understand their own capabilities, and exert themselves to become men and women.

But while the Free States sustain a law which hurls fugitives back into slavery, how can the slaves resolve to become men? There are some who strive to protect wives and daughters from the insults of their masters; but those who have such sentiments have had advantages above the general mass of slaves. They have been partially civilized and Christianized by favorable circumstances. Some are bold enough to utter such sentiments to their masters. O, that there were more of them!

Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters. Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors? I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work.

Southern gentlemen indulge in the most contemptuous expressions about the Yankees, while they, on their part, consent to do the vilest work for them, such as the ferocious bloodhounds and the despised negro-hunters are employed to do at home. When southerners go to the north, they are proud to do them honor; but the northern man is not welcome south of Mason and Dixon's line, unless he suppresses every thought and feeling at variance with their “peculiar institution.” Nor is it enough to be silent. The masters are not pleased, unless they obtain a greater degree of subservience than that; and they are generally accommodated. Do they respect the northerner for this? I trow not. Even the slaves despise “a northern man with southern principles”; and that is the class they generally see. When northerners go to the south to reside, they prove very apt scholars. They soon imbibe the sentiments and disposition of their neighbors, and generally go beyond their teachers. Of the two, they are proverbially the hardest masters.

They seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves. What a libel upon the heavenly Father, who “made of one blood all nations of men!” And then who are Africans? Who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves?

I have spoken of the pains slaveholders take to give their slaves a bad opinion of the north; but, notwithstanding this, intelligent slaves are aware that they have many friends in the Free States. Even the most ignorant have some confused notions about it. They knew that I could read; and I was often asked if I had seen any thing in the newspapers about white folks over in the big north, who were trying to get their freedom for them. Some believe that the abolitionists have already made them free, and that it is established by law, but that their masters prevent the law from going into effect. One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of 'Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn't believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarrelled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.

That poor, ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice.

Footnotes

  1. The Queen Justice mentioned here is most likely a reference to Lady Justice. Lady Justice is an allegorical personification of the ideal of justice, often portrayed with a blindfold over her eyes to represent the idea that justice is blind and should be applied to everyone regardless of wealth, power, or other such status.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  2. Jacobs began writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853, and the book was published in 1861. During this period, three US presidents allowed slavery to remain an institution: Millard Fillmore who served from 1850–1853, Franklin Pierce who served from 1853–1857, and James Buchanan who served from 1857–1861. President Abraham Lincoln finally dealt with slavery by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  3. The noun “abolitionist” refers to someone who advocates for an immediate end to a particular practice or institution. In Jacobs’s time, abolitionists demanded an immediate end to the slave trade and the emancipation of all African slaves. The abolitionist movement greatly developed in the 1830s, following the Second Great Awakening. White folks and freed slaves worked together to convince Americans of the sins they were committing as long as slavery was kept intact. The abolitionist movement continued until 1870 when the right to vote was extended to African American men.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  4. The Mason-Dixon line is the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Originally created to settle a land dispute in the 1760s, the Mason-Dixon line became important during the Civil War when it became a symbol of the separation between Northern “Free States” and Southern “Slave States”.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  5. The noun “Yankee” serves as a nickname or term for inhabitants of New England, the northern States, or even for Americans in general. The term was widely used during the Civil War by Confederate soldiers against the soldiers of the Federal army, serving as a derogatory nickname for anyone who lived in the North.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  6. The noun “hindoo” is an archaic spelling of the noun that refers to those who adhere to the Hindu religion. Jacobs uses it pejoratively here, implying that Hindus are less enlightened than Christians.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  7. The adjective “heathen” describes those who hold religious beliefs considered unenlightened, specifically those not of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faiths. In this case, Jacobs is talking about slaves who haven’t experienced the enlightening powers of the self. They have yet to awaken to the fact that their freedom is more valuable than their life in slavery.

    — Owl Eyes Reader