There is no denying the physical violence and oppressing exertion of power inflicted by white American slaveholders upon enslaved African Americans, but often left out of this narrative is the sexual violence and the effects it had on those who endured it. To take this a step further, it is the effects that sexual abuse had on mental health that are not discussed nearly enough. This topic became especially significant after reading Nell Irvin Painter’s essay “Soul Murder and Slavery”and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In analyzing these two pieces of writing, one finds that both address in different ways a similar concern: the effect of sexual violence on the mental health of an enslaved woman.
To, in a way, simplify the connection between the two works, one can see both as having intertwining themes of hopefulness and hopelessness. In Painter’s essay, the hopelessness stems from the author’s description of mental health concerns caused by sexual violence, including depression and low self-esteem; conversely, the hopefulness stems from Painter’s recognition that certain factors helped enslaved women overcome the damage inflicted on their psychological well-being. It is similar in Jacob’s novel, but here the focus is the mental well-being of a single person as she experiences life as a slave. Between Painter’s “Soul Murder and Slavery” and Jacobs’ Incidents of a Slave Girl is an interplay of hopefulness and hopelessness, or that of soul murder and the resistance enslaved women put up against the damage caused by sexual violence.
In her essay “Soul Murder and Slavery,” Nell Irvin Painter discusses sexual violence, a violence that often gets overlooked and overshadowed by physical violence when discussing nineteenth century institutional slavery; further, Painter discusses the psychological consequences of experiencing this type of abuse. Specifically, she uses the term “soul murder” to encompass these effects, which one can associate with the idea of hopelessness, including depression, lowered self-esteem, and anger. A significance of Painter’s essay is that it not only brings up this rarely discussed aspect of violence towards slaves, but it also explains the resistance put up by slaves to any permanent damage by this abuse. Painter explains that the support of a slave’s own family and a slave’s faith in religion served as “two essential emotional counterweights to owners’ physical and psychological assaults,” and that, through these communal support systems, “slaves could reject their masters’ assumptions that slaves were constitutionally inferior as people and that they deserved to be enslaved” (Painter, 182). In this, we see that soul murder was not absolute. The damage from the oppressors could be resisted if the community (familial, religious) was strong. There is a great example of this resistance to negative forces and experiences in Harriet Jacobs’ character of Linda.
In Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents of a Slave Girl, the reader follows the story of Linda, a woman experiencing life as a slave. Through the unwanted sexual attention from her master, along with many other struggles, we see Linda’s mental health affected by her experiences. Linda’s psychological well-being experiences both highs and lows. The lows are the periods in which she seems hopelessness, representing what Painter calls soul murder. At these times, Linda faces depressed thoughts so severe that she wants to end her own life. Her years hidden in her grandmother’s crawl space reveal this poor mental health, as well does all of her interactions with Dr. Flint, her primary abuser. On the contrary, Linda also experiences periods of life in which she is hopeful and, to an extent, happy. We see this hope and resiliency within her character from the beginning of the novel when she is reflecting on her lack of power, exclaiming “though one of God’s powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered” (Jacobs, 19). Beyond her character, this hope and mental well-being come largely from her love for her children, the support of her family, and faith. Significantly, this mirrors Painter’s two forces of familial bonds and religious faith that oppose negative effects of psychological and sexual abuse.
There are a few significant thoughts to consider when reflecting on Painter’s essay, Jacobs’ novel, and the other documents in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. First, it is significant to note that of the documents, essays, and stories read, Harriet Jacobs was the only author to actually experience that of which she wrote on (the sexual violence against enslaved women). Painter provides a well thought out analysis, but she did not experience that which she writes on. Second, the research and discussion of mental health in history is not only interesting but necessary. This is especially true for the history of the oppressed, as violence inflicted on the oppressed is a recurring theme in history. Though much of this is physical, other forms of violence and abuse exist, and the psychological effects of this violence go largely unheard of.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents of a Slave Girl (Boston: Dover Publications, Inc., 1861).
Painter, Nell Irvin “Soul Murder and Slavery,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexualitiy, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 109-112.