by Julie R. Adams
". . . I do earnestly
desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition
of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what
I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony
to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery
really is. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark,
and foul is that pit of abominations."
So writes Harriet Jacobs (under the pen name of Linda Brent) in the Preface
of her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Incidents is Jacobs' own story of what it was like to be born and
reared in slavery. Through her book, she gives the reader a clear
picture of the life of a female house slave in the South before the Civil
War. In anguishing detail, Jacobs tells how she resisted being sexually
exploited by her master and how she gained a degree of freedom from this
oppression first by going into hiding and then by escaping to the North.
Incidents is also the story of the sacrifices Jacobs made to protect
her family and to help her two children, as well as herself, become legally
Harriet Jacobs was born in North Carolina in 1813. She was born a
slave but "never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away."
Both of Jacobs' parents were mulattos (children of a White father and a
Negro mother), and her family, including her brother, lived together in
a comfortable home. When Jacobs' was six, her mother died.
It was at this time that she learned she was a slave. Still her life
was not difficult. Her mistress was very kind to her and imposed
no disagreeable tasks on her. However, upon the death of her mistress,
Jacobs found her situation becoming increasingly intolerable. Jacobs
was only fifteen when "Dr. Flint," her master, began his sexual pursuit
of her. This abuse and the resulting oppression from Flint's wife
forced Jacobs to take drastic measures to protect herself. She encouraged
a relationship with "Mr. Sands," a white, unmarried lawyer and eventually
bore two children by him, the first child (a son) when she was sixteen
years old and a daughter when she was eighteen.
When the situation with "Dr. Flint" became intolerable, Jacobs left her
children and ran away. She took refuge in the small garret of her
grandmother's house, located in the same town as "Dr. Flint's" residence.
Jacobs was twenty-two years old. She spent the next seven years living
in the garret in a space that was only nine feet by seven feet and three
feet at its highest point. Her living conditions and the constant
fear of detection took a big toll on her well-being. Finally, Jacobs'
was able to escape to the North, and her children eventually followed.
During the next six years, Jacobs managed to support herself while evading
numerous attempts by "Dr. Flint" and his daughter to locate her and return
her to slavery in the South. Finally, at the age of forty, Jacobs
was purchased and then emancipated by "Mrs. Bruce," a staunch abolitionist
who was Jacobs' employer and friend.
PERSPECTIVES FOR READING INCIDENTS
There are many different ways to read Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in
the Life of a Slave Girl. The following is a list of several
as an example of a work of literature
written by a slave woman;
to illustrate how the various members
of an intact slave family interacted under the burden of slavery;
from a moral point of view (In the book,
Jacobs asks her readers to be understanding of the conflict between some
of her actions and her knowledge of what is morally correct.);
to better understand the psychological
impact of slavery on its victims;
as an example of civil disobedience
(in the same manner as Thoreau who published "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"
in 1849, fourteen years after Harriet Jacobs ran away from Dr. Flint
and two years after she escaped to the North).
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl also lends itself to critical
discussions on a number of topics. Several of these topics are listed
ISSUES & TOPICS
the authenticity of Jacobs as the author
why Jacobs' book did not receive the
literary and historical attention it deserved until the late 1900's.
Possible issues to consider:
(1) [literary] Jacobs was a woman
and a Black woman as
sexism of the "canon")
(2) [historical] the book was published
in 1861 and so was
important for abolitionists as earlier works;
comparisons of Jacobs' Incidents
to her brother's (John Jacobs) accounts of her life in his publication,
"A True Tale of Slavery";
RETURN TO HARRIET JACOBS
GO TO TABLE OF CONTENTS
the impact of the Nat Turner Insurrection
in 1831 on the lives of slaves;
the lives of free Blacks in the South
before the Civil War (like Jacobs' grandmother);
the issue of the black woman's sexuality
and oppression by white slave owners;
the conflict between the "ideal" concept
of motherhood (the "white" standard) and the realities of slave motherhood;
the issue of slave literacy (under what
circumstances did slaves learn to read and write? what were the consequences
-- negative and positive -- for literate slaves?);
the origin of the word "Jim Crow" and
how the Jim Crow laws came into existence after the Civil War;
Harriet Jacobs' life after she became
Last updated: January 4, 1998