When I think back on my childhood, I remember putting a quarter into the little horse ride in front of our local shoe shop; begging for another turn. I remember Arts & Crafts and Story-time in Mrs. Frances’ class. I remember my brother and I running around in our backyard and falling off my bike. I remember holiday parties with family and receiving more gifts than my little arms could hold. I remember the first time ever crushing on a boy, all because he made me a card using green construction paper and lots of glitter. I’d like to think he knew me pretty well. But the most invigorating thing about childhood was my freedom and belief that I was truly free… because I was.
And that’s what childhood should look like: a picture of freedom and happiness. But the sad reality is some are not as fortunate as I was growing up.
In Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we can see how slavery strips one of their childhood. Linda Brent was cared for and sheltered by her parents since the age of six, able to live a pretty normal life, free of being identified as a slave. However, when they died, the shadow of her slave identity creeped in faster than she could blink. Under Dr. Flint’s household, Linda was subjected to the same mistreatment we read about in previous novels. She was ordered, abused, and deprived of her basic human rights. Let us remember, she is still a young girl. Can you imagine? Growing up feeling privileged and having some sense of self-worth because you had parents that nurtured you, then being forced under such brutality by Dr. Flint?
This caused Linda to grow up quicker than most. She needed to learn her duties, express respect for those who hurt her, and endure the pain and agony of slavery. Linda was not seen as a child by her owners. She was a slave, a piece of property, and nothing else. Jacobs’ novel show readers that in slavery, a child’s innocence is taken from them. That at their young age, their life is predetermined to be subjected to their masters, unable to dream or live as they pleased without suffering consequences. Linda’s story of two young sisters captured the effects of slavery on children and their childhood:
I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.
How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (Chapter 5)
Both children are seen as innocent, full of laughter and happiness. They are oblivious to the fact that they come from different worlds and one of them will suffer. However, as readers, and like Linda, we know that this happiness will not last forever. The white sister will have a better fate than that of her slave sister because their skin-tone is different. The white child will be privileged and continue to experience the joys of her childhood; whereas the slave girl will be deprived of such happiness. As well as in adulthood, their fates are on opposite ends. Even though both girls are of kin and beautiful, their potential is pushed in two different directions because of slavery. And the fate of the slave girl is not full of sunshine and flowers. There is no sign of love. There is only “sin and shame, and misery.”
After reading that, how can we believe in happy endings? As a child, I’ve lived off of fairy-tales. I’ve been told stories of princesses, happy families, and adventures. My parents told me that the world was mine for the taking and with hard work and determination anything was possible. Even in my adulthood, I believe in all of that… just in different contexts. But those stories, the endless possibilities they hold, were what got me by. I saw love in my parents, loyalty in my friends, and empowerment in my education. For Linda it was the complete opposite. She saw the world differently because the convention of slavery taught her to see it that way. Growing up, my view on the world and how things work are definitely different. But to imagine myself stripped of possibilities, forced into labor, separated from family, abused, and reminded I am nothing but property every day of my life? I don’t know if I could ever live. And as Linda expressed, she didn’t want to either.
Every child should have the right to dream. They have a right to happiness. They have a right to exercise what it means to be free. However slavery deflates the air of that happy balloon and one just watches it spin-off to a far away place. Children should roam wild and free, and if they want to fly, then they should be told it’s possible. If they want to be happy, show them its real.