I am, perhaps, unqualified to give answers where they are needed, but I wish to provide a topic of discussion which has perplexed me. In my American Literature course, we read excerpts from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I wish to discuss an excerpt from chapter 10 and the relationship between the main character, Linda Brent, and her master.
In chapter 10, Brent voluntarily has pre-marital sex, which we are invited to judge as either good or otherwise. I know of many Catholic friends who would without question declare that pre-marital sex is evil. I ask them now, what is evil about it: 1) the end (that which is aimed for and why) 2) the means to this end, or 3) the circumstances (including the influences upon and the tendencies within the person); all three combined, or only some of them combined? To say an action is evil or good is a rather vague statement when considering the whole of the given action. Such is the case here, for, yes, Brent has pre-marital sex, and indeed, she states, “neither can I plead ignorance or thoughtlessness,” but Brent had no better choice in the matter (47). How so?
I often hear in Catholic circles that ‘there is always a better choice out there!’ What if Brent had made it? Wait a second, disordered sexual relations was the better choice to make? How is this choice good at all? Well, here lies why “the demon Slavery” filled Brent, and many others, both slaves and slave-owners, with “sorrow and shame” (47-48).
At one point, Brent’s master, Dr. Flint, decided to build her a shack in which she could seclude herself and thereby destroy her dignity, or as her master put it, “make a lady of [her]” (47). The seclusion was inevitable if Brent could not revolt in some way. Brent was the passive agent of this fateful end. Thus, when it occurred that a “white unmarried gentleman” took interest in her, she reluctantly obliged in sexual relations with the man so as to become pregnant, becoming an active agent of her fate (48). Brent’s pregnancy prevented the potential for rape. Furthermore, she cared for Dr. Flint because “the wrong [did] not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who [had] a wife to be made unhappy” (48).
It may be noted that a marriage between Brent and her lover was impossible due to the differences in skin color at this time. Thus, her moral situation was the following:
- Brent’s end: to become pregnant (the act) so as to prevent rape and its potential consequences upon Dr. Flint and his wife (the aim).
- Brent’s means: pre-marital sexual relations.
- Brent’s key circumstances: she was ignorant of the distinction between venial and mortal sin, but she still viewed sin as evil to better or worse degrees; as such, she is culpable to the degree she is knowledgeable of the lesser sin she is committing, but not such that she is necessarily damning herself to hell.
So, we have a slave woman who morally chose a better evil over another, caring for the one whom had caused her this suffering. Has Brent, therefore, done a good thing? Why or why not? If you say that she has not, you are essentially telling her that she should be worse off, and if you judge that she has done a good thing, then you are admitting that she “ought not to be judged by the same standards as,” for example, the Catholic standards (49). Indeed, Brent reflects that, perhaps, we should not hold her morally culpable by the same standards of Catholics or otherwise. Do you agree with her here? Why or why not?
I will make one last point, for it seems that the Catholic ‘easy-way-out’ answer is to say that one is either with Christ or against Him, and Brent is against Him. If so, to what degree can one be good while being against Christ? Such a question arises when one studies slavery. It is a sad matter when the good arises in the most evil of ways imaginable. Hence, my title here.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Publications Inc., 2001. Print.