A Comparison and Contrast of How Blood-Related Children are Treated by the Protaganist's in Baldwin's go tell it on the Mountain and Jacob's Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl
In both of these books, the authors have a special consideration for the innocence of the young, as seen by John Grimes and Linda Brent. There is a tenderness that animates each protagonist. It is interesting to observe the different directions this gilded gentleness takes each main character. Baldwin’s John Grimes picks up his baby sister in Go Tell It On The Mountain. The household is incredibly tense because Roy has just been wounded in a senseless knife fight. The baby girl has been squalling and crying when John’s mother sends John over to look after her. John gently picks her up and she immediately quietens. Notably, this is one of the few times in the book we ever see John have enough freedom to be lighthearted and chuckle.
From the room behind him, John heard the baby begin to whimper.
…John walked in to his parents’ bedroom and picked up the squalling
baby, who was wet. The moment Ruth felt him lift her up she stopped
crying and stared at him with a wide-eyed, pathetic stare, as though she
knew that there was trouble in the house. John laughed at her so ancient seeming distress–he was very fond of his baby sister–and whispered in
her ear as he started back to the living-room: “Now, you let your big
brother tell you something, baby. Just as soon as you’s able to
stand on your feet, you run away from this house, run far away.”
He did not quite know why he said this, or where he wanted her
to run, but it made him feel instantly better (B, 43-44).
Children in Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical work are far more pivotal to the central character–indeed, they are a driving focus of the author’s existence once her two progeny are born. The determination to protect her children, to ensure their freedom from the evil clutches of slavery, and the fervent, life-long desire to provide a home for her children so they may safely live near her, animate Jacobs’ every waking thought and action taken in this book and beyond. In contrast to John Grimes, who whispers to his baby sister to “run away, as far and as fast as you can” (B, 44), Linda Brent’s overarching longing is never to let her kids out of her sight; always to have her children near her, living a quiet happy life together, safe in Linda’s own home. The racial and cultural disadvantage and turmoil of slavery which the children are born into, however, make such idyllic familial tranquility impossible.
Being considered chattel renders Linda Brent’s entire life a cat-and-mouse game where she must constantly defend herself from and evade the lustful, dehumanizing machinations and sexual harassment of Dr. Flint. Rather than submit to Flint’s lewd designs for an adulterous relationship with her, Linda gives herself sexually to another man who is at least kind to her, Mr. Sands: “Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon. I also felt quite sure that they would be made free” (J, 60). Their children, fathered in a modicum of respect, have at least a chance at a better life. Linda’s heart is greatly rejoiced, when her child is born, at the promise Mr. Sands makes to Linda and her grandmother: “he spoke kind and encouraging words. He promised to care for my child, and to buy me, be the conditions what they might” (J, 63).
It is heartbreaking to see, in Jacobs’ book, how young children are robbed of their innocent, carefree joy and forced always to be on the lookout for people trying to harm or capture their mother. Benny tries to protect his mother from Dr. Flint and is thrown across a room and knocked unconscious (J, 89). Little Ellen faithfully keeps secret her mother’s hiding place–with life or death consequences–in a tension no child should have to endure:
[Uncle Philip] said, solemnly, “Ellen, this is the secret you have
promised grandmother never to tell. If you ever speak of it to any body
they will never let you see your grandmother again, and your mother can
never come to Brooklyn.”…He told her that she might stay with me and
when he had gone, I took her in my arms and told her I was a slave, and
that was the reason she must never say she had seen me. I exhorted
her to be a good child, to try to please the people where she was going,
and that God would raise her up friends (J, 157).
Like Linda, John Grimes wants freedom for his little sister; we can infer he wants for her freedom from drudgery, from beatings; from cruelty, from hopelessness he sometimes feels. Linda is similar in her desire for a better life for the next generation:
Again and again I had traversed those dreary twelve miles,
to and from the town; and all the way, I was meditating upon some
means of escape for myself and my children….It was more for my
helpless children than for myself that I longed for freedom. Though
the boon would have been precious for me, above all price, I would
not have taken it at the expense of leaving them in slavery. Every trial
I endured, every sacrifice I made for their sakes, drew them closer to my
heart, and gave me fresh courage…” (J, 99-100).
John Grimes has unequivocal love for his baby sister; it is a solid force of goodness that even the tiny child recognizes, instantly quieting when John picks her up. John’s relationship with his younger brother, Roy, is deeper. John is affectionate and loyal with Roy, and Roy reciprocates. They share a room and a bed (B, 12), and many adventures together. The two brothers can communicate wordlessly (B, 45).. They are united in bitterly suffering their father’s senseless and brutal whippings, and in hating their father for his cruelty. Roy sometimes comes
along to help John clean the church for Tarry Service on Saturday afternoons (B, 13). On John’s fourteenth birthday, he is glad when his brother Roy teases him and touches him on the forehead. They get along, buddies looking out for each other and exchanging glances at the outrageous sights the two boys encounter in their travels (B, 4). John hears his brother’s confessions (B, 5), and worries for his brother’s wayward soul. As with his baby sister, John also has a tenderness for his younger brother, Roy. When Roy gets his face slashed in a gang fight against some white boys, John compassionately notes how Roy silently bears the pain, and how much it must be hurting Roy: “Certainly the wound was now ugly and red, and must, John felt, with a quickened sympathy towards Roy, who had not cried out, have been very painful” (B, 46).
With Linda Brent, this love and compassion for children become a force that transforms her, and for which she comes to decide to lay down her life for her children if necessary, realizing she must escape for her children’s sake, rather than her own, as Linda ponders her relegation to Mr. Flint’s plantation: “I was resolved that I would foil my master and save my children, or I would perish in the attempt….I had a mother’s love for my children;…I resolved that out of the darkness a brighter dawn should rise for them” (J, 94,-95).
When Linda Brent finally makes her escape to the Free States, pursuits and avoidances continue to order her life and her children’s proximity to her. At one point, work obligations force Linda to leave her daughter Ellen in New York with a professed ally, Mrs. Hobbs. But when Linda returns, two years later, she finds, to her horror, that Ellen has been all but pressed into servitude, not given the education that had been promised. The duplicitous Mrs. Hobbs is thus revealed as anything but a friend. Rather, she is a betrayer of the worst kind, a
self-centered, cruel and covetous person who thinks nothing of reneging on her word and choking off a young girl’s freedom for her own gain (J, 188).
The times Linda Brent can peacefully be with her children seem like furtive, stolen moments, in contrast to the easy tender care John Grimes is allowed to give his baby sister in the far less threatened living quarters their parents are able to provide for their family. There does, however, come a time when they can laugh and enjoy lightheartedness: when Benny, newly arrived in Boston, comes racing to his mother’s door (J, 196); and again in Boston, when all three of them were at last together: “we reached Boston in safety. The day after my arrival was one of the happiest of my life….I had both my children together with me. They greatly enjoyed their reunion, and laughed and chatted merrily. I watched them with a swelling heart. Their every motion delighted me” (J, 205).
As with John Grimes, this gentle time of Linda Brent’s laughter with her children–so simple–is an extremely rare occurrence. That happy moment when all three of them are rejoicing in the same room is in fact the zenith of Harriet Jacobs’ life.
Harriet Jacobs and James Baldwin lived in two completely different eras. The tribulations Linda Brent suffered through as a slave woman gave way to the relative security of John Grimes’ dusty little home and neighborhood church, where John and his dysfunctional family could live in an abundance of peace compared to Linda and her children. In contrast, ultimately Linda and her phalanx of abolitionist friends were able to outwit, outlast and outplay the wretched Dr. Flint and Mr. Dodge, and staunch supporter Mrs. Bruce was able to purchase the freedom of Linda and her children forever (J, 225). Both John Grimes and Linda Brent suffered under their persecutions. Both wanted better days for the very young and for themselves. Linda’s perseverance won her and her children freedom at last, which Grandmother Marthy and Uncle Philip both lived to hear about. Because both John and Linda valued education, a brighter future was in store for them all.
Though tragically Benny never made it home from a trip with Harriet’s brother to Australia, Harriet Jacobs and her daughter dedicated their later lives to educating newly freed slaves, founding schools in Alexandria, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. When the rise of the Ku-Klux-Klan and anti-black racial violence in Georgia made that impossible, they raised money in England and New England, donating the resources to the asylum fund of the New York Friends. When Harriet died, her daughter was by her side, a treasure of loyal, loving filial piety and family security Linda Brent succeeded in fomenting.
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It On the Mountain, Vintage International (2013). Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Signet Classics (2010). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lloyd_Garrison