March 2, 2006
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)
Harriet Jacobs was born to mulatto parents in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. She was born a slave, but she didn’t know it until she was six, when her mother died.
From then until shortly before she turned twelve, Jacobs lived with her mother’s mistress, who taught her how to read, write and spell. When her mistress died, she willed Jacobs to her five-year-old niece, whose father was a doctor. He became Jacobs’ master, and she soon became the object of his obsession, which grew increasingly worse as she grew older. After years of living as a slave, much of which was spent trying to avoid the sexual advances of her master, she managed to escape to her grandmother’s house. For the next seven years, Jacobs lived in the garret of her grandmother’s house, in a space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high at its highest point, somehow managing to avoid the constant attempts by the master to find her. She eventually escaped to the North, where she worked while still being hunted by the master. When she was forty years old, she was purchased, and freed, by her employer.
After obtaining her freedom, Jacobs began working to help free other slaves. In 1861, she wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl using the pseudonym “Linda Brent.” In the introduction to her book, she writes that she changed the names of the people, but the events are related as they actually happened.
During the Civil War, Jacobs worked to aid the black refugees from the South. After the war ended, she continued to help the newly freed blacks, establishing the Jacobs Free School and a black orphanage.
Jacobs died in Washington, D.C. in 1897.
1. Slaves are property, and they have no rights, nor are there any laws to protect them.
“There is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death.”
2. Females slaves were often forced into sexual encounters with their white masters.
“He told me that I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.” (page 59)
3. The more beautiful a female slave was, the harder life was for her.
“If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.” (page 60)
4. The white mistresses often mistreated the female slaves.
“The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage.” (page 59)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written and published during the upheaval that preceded the Civil War, and was an attempt to educate the northern part of the country about the horrors of slavery.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in Boston in 1861. Jacobs and her family then moved to Philadelphia, where she began selling the book. The book was extremely successful within the abolitionist movement and anti-slavery agencies. With the assistance of her brother, John, who was living in London, Jacobs attempted to get the book published in London. The manuscript was sent to a London publisher, who changed the name, changed the title page, and proceeded to sell pirated copies, which also sold extremely well. The success of the book encouraged Jacobs to continue her efforts to assist runaway, and eventually free, blacks.
Jacobs’ book reveals, in the words of a slave, the racism and sexism that was prevalent in the institution of slavery, and allows readers of the present generation to see what life was actually like for a slave. It also provides some explanation for the differences that divided our country then, and still divide it to this day.
Jacobs was a remarkably articulate writer, and her work is still studied by literary groups today. In fact, an excerpt from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is included in the textbook used this semester for the Images of Women in Literature course here at A&M-Texarkana.