Soul Writing in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Time
Real writing, soul writing is dangerous; there is an intrinsic, gut-churning element of risk within the process of telling the truth, a risk that yields an adrenaline rush that parallels skydiving and skinny-dipping. The thrill of one's own truth displayed nakedly in little black letters on a white page is scary and beautiful, both chaining and freeing. The issue for authors, like skydivers, is that after they jump out of the plane (start writing) the fears don't disappear. The diver-author asks herself, "Should I really be doing this... What if my parachute doesn't work... What if I'm misunderstood?" Harriet Jacobs and John Edgar Wideman undergo this free-fall, these fears. In the telling of their stories, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs) and Our Time (Wideman), each author is self-conscious. Both authors tell about a minority in their stories; Jacobs speaks of the female slave and Wideman speaks of the African-American gangster. Because they tell the story of a minority to a majority, they can't afford to be misunderstood. They also can't afford to write solely in metaphors because they not only must prove their competence through reserved analysis but also must appeal to the hearts and minds of their audience.
The authors must bring middle class white readers as close to the slave plantation or the Ghetto or the prison cell as possible. For this reason, both authors refer to the reader with questions. This rhetorical device forces the reader to place herself in the situation of the main character. For example, when discussing the abuse she took from her master, Dr. flint, Jacobs asks, "But where could I turn for protection?"(477). Jacobs needs to make the reader understand that the rules that hold true for us (i.e. I can call the police, or get a divorce...) didn't apply to her. She needs to make it clear that she wasn't weak but just lacked any other option because, while it seems so clear to us as readers in the 1990s, the same assumptions would probably not have been made in the 1800s. But Jacobs is not only making this point clear to the reader; she is making it clear to herself. In writing her story, Jacobs comes to terms with herself.
Wideman similarly employs the use of the question. While struggling with the issue of telling his brother's story without making it his own, he asks the reader a string of questions: "And if I did learn to listen, wouldn't there be a point at which I'd have to take over the telling? Wasn't there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, on escape? Wasn't another person's skin a hiding place, a place to work out anxiety, to face threats too intimidating to handle in any other fashion? Wasn't writing about people a way of exploiting them?"(722). Wideman, uncomfortable with his relationship between his brother, the text, and himself, makes his plight...