This was the written notes for my Theory presentation on Homi Bhabha’s essay. I chose the Jacobs book from our exam list as my example of his theories.
Theory Presentation: Using The Introduction to Homi Bhabha’s Essay
as a Lens for Interpreting Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Homi Bhabha reiterates that in human global culture, especially post-modern, post-colonial culture, the tendency to polarize and create cultural binaries, or boundaries abound. He suggests that these manufactured borders, rather than being walls, or end zones, are actually starting lines of new Hybrid cultures. He says, “The boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presence” (Bhabha 7).
The word “hybrid” is important to Bhabha. In his book How to Interpret Literature, Robert Dale Parker tells his reader that Bhabha uses it to mean “cultural multiplicity” (Parker 297). It could also be defined as the overlap of social borders.
Here are some examples of the binaries Bhabha resists:
Black/White Black — White
Male/Female Male — Female
Master/Slave Master — Slave
Urban/Rural Urban — Rural
North/South North — South
Good/Evil Good — Evil
Rather than see these social strictures this way, Bhabha symbolically changes the slashes to dashes (/ to –), creating bridges rather than boundaries. He believes the convergence of cultures creates new cultures, and that this happens globally throughout history.
This cross-pollination of cultures happens throughout Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiographical book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Here is a list of the ways Jacobs’ book illustrates Bhabha’s theories (and his citations of Renée Green) of post-colonial hybridization:
- Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs) lives in two attics for over seven years. The first is a secret bedroom in a white female sympathizer’s house, and the other, more dramatic one was the cramped attic space over a shed. All the while her slave masters and children live below at street level. This is like Renee Green’s architecture analogy of attics and and basements, and stairways as liminal space. Rather than attic/downstairs, it becomes attic — downstairs with emphasis on the STAIRS part, as they are the conduit for Linda’s protectors to bring her food and news of her family’s well-being. Green states “I use architecture literally as a reference, using the attic, the boiler room, and the stairwell to make associations between certain binary division such as higher and lower and heaven and hell” (Sites of Genealogy).
2) Linda has a white name and a white pseudonym.
3) Linda is biracial. Her maternal grandfather was a white slaveholder who had sex
With her slave grandmother. Black/White becomes “a light shade of brownish
yellow” (Jacobs 8).
4) Male/Female becomes one as Linda’s symbiotic feelings of suffering with her
brother William arise, she in her attic cell, he in jail for keeping her secret. (85)
5) Linda’s mother and her white mistress were both nursed by Linda’s grandmother.
Linda herself chooses to have two children by a white man, hoping this may be her
ticket to freedom. They are further evidence of Linda’s hope for (what Franz Fanon
would call, “reciprocal recognitions” (Bhabha). Linda, who is fully slave, yet has
so much white in her genes, tries to assimilate and blend the two. It is the white
culture that wants no part of this hybrid, not the black culture.
6) Linda’s style of writing is white. There are a number of critics who do not believe a
mulatto slave woman in 1861 could write such a book. But write it she did,
becoming an excellent example of Bhabha’s “borderline work of culture” (9). This
work he writes, “demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the
continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of
cultural translation” (9).
Bhabha mentions Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a story of “an affective, historic memory of an emergent public sphere of men and women alike” (7). This same can be said for Jacobs’ book. Linda is like Morrison’s Sethe, and her daughter Ellen, although still alive and well at the end of the book, can be compared to Sethe’s Beloved. Bhabha continues, “Through the death and return of Beloved, precisely such a reclamation takes place: the slave mother regaining through the presence of the child, the property of her own person” (19).
Useful Quotes from Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
“In complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish-yellow, and were termed mulattoes” (8).
“My father, by his nature, as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skilful mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common among slaves” (11).
“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 that lovely sight” (28).
“The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high and sloped down abruptly” (96).
“In the midst of these meditations, I heard footsteps on the stairs. The door opened, and my uncle Phillip came, leading Ellen by the hand. I put my arms round her, and said, ‘Ellen, my dear child, I am your mother’” (115).
“I had never seen so large a city, or been in contact with so many people in the streets. It seemed to me as if those who passed looked at us with an expression of curiosity. My face was so blistered and peeled, by sitting on deck, in wind and sunshine, that I thought they could not easily decide to what nation I belonged” (132).
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Joslyn T. Pine. Dover Thrift Editions.