Home > History, memoir, Sociology > Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

  • Author: Harriet Ann Jacobs
  • Publisher:  Simon & Brown
  • Published: March, 2011
  • Pages: 192
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF, MOBI, LRF, RTF, EPUB
  • Price: $9.95

Published in 1861, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was one of the first personal narratives by a slave and one of the few written by a woman. Jacobs (1813-97) was a slave in North Carolina and suffered terribly, along with her family, at the hands of a ruthless owner. She made several failed attempts to escape before successfully making her way North, though it took years of hiding and slow progress. Eventually, she was reunited with her children. For all biography and history collections. “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” Harriet Jacobs wrote in 1861. At that time she was an escaped slave living in the north, but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 meant that she could no longer consider being in the northern states a guarantee of freedom or safety. Her book is an eloquent recital of the suffering that is slavery. Families broken apart; promises of freedom made but never kept; whippings, beatings, and burnings; masters selling their own children – all are recounted with precise detail and a blazing indignation. Harriet Jacobs’ master started pursuing her when she was fifteen; in disgust she continually refused and avoided him. Her first attempt at revenge and escape failed: she became the lover of a local unmarried white man and had several children, but even then her master refused to sell her. Finally, in desperation, she ran away and hid in an uninsulated garret, three feet high at its tallest point with almost no air or light. She stayed there for seven years, enduring cold, heat, and a crippling lack of movement, always hoping to catch a glimpse of her children through a crack in the walls as they walked by on the road below her. At last she had a chance to escape to the North. Her story is a remarkable testimony to her strength and courage, and an unrelenting attack upon the institution of slavery.

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Published in 1861, this was one of the first personal narratives by a slave and one of the few written by a woman. Jacobs (1813-97) was a slave in North Carolina and suffered terribly, along with her family, at the hands of a ruthless owner. She made several failed attempts to escape before successfully making her way North, though it took years of hiding and slow progress. Eventually, she was reunited with her children. For all biography and history collections. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Review

Published in 1861, this was one of the first personal narratives by a slave and one of the few written by a woman. Jacobs (1813-97) was a slave in North Carolina and suffered terribly, along with her family, at the hands of a ruthless owner. She made several failed attempts to escape before successfully making her way North, though it took years of hiding and slow progress. Eventually, she was reunited with her children. For all biography and history collections. (Library Journal )

Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” Harriet Jacobs wrote in 1861. At that time she was an escaped slave living in the north, but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 meant that she could not longer consider being in the northern states a guarantee of freedom or safety. Her book is an eloquent recital of the suffering that is slavery. Families broken apart; promises of freedom made but never kept; whippings, beatings, and burnings; masters selling their own children – all are recounted with precise detail and a blazing indignation. Harriet Jacobs’ master started pursuing her when she was fifteen; in disgust she continually refused and avoided him. Her first attempt at revenge and escape failed: she became the lover of a local unmarried white man and had several children, but even then her master refused to sell her. Finally, in desperation, she ran away and hid in an uninsulated garret, three feet high at its tallest point with almost no air or light. She stayed there for seven years, enduring cold, heat, and a crippling lack of movement, always hoping to catch a glimpse of her children through a crack in the walls as they walked by on the road below her. At last she had a chance to escape to the North. Her story is a remarkable testimony to her strength and courage, and an unrelenting attack upon the institution of slavery. — For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. — From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Erica Bauermeister (Erica Bauermeister )

Most helpful reviews

A Woman’s Life in Slavery

By Robin Friedman

Harriet Jacobs’ (1813-1897) “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” is one of the few accounts of Southern slavery written by a woman. The book was published in 1861 through the efforts of Maria Child, an abolitionist who edited the book and wrote an introduction to it. The book had its origin in a series of letters Jacobs wrote between 1853 and 1861 to her friends in the abolitionist movement, notably a woman named Amy Post. Historically, there was some doubt about the authorship of the book and about the authenticity of the incidents it records. These doubts have largely been put to rest by the discovery of the letters.

The book indeed has elements of a disguise and of a novel. Jacobs never uses her real name but calls herself instead “Linda Brent.” The other characters in the book are also given pseudonyms. Jacobs tells us in the Preface to the book (signed “Linda Brent”) that she changed names in order to protect the privacy of individuals but that the incidents recounted in the narrative are “no fiction”.

Jacobs was born in slave rural North Carolina. As a young girl, she learned to read and write, which was highly rare among slaves. At about the age of 11 she was sent to live as a slave to a doctor who also owned a plantation, called “Dr. Flint” in the book.

Jacobs book describes well the cruelties of the “Peculiar Institution — in terms of its beatings, floggings, and burnings, overwork, starvation, and dehumanization. It focuses as well upon the selling and wrenching apart of families that resulted from the commodification of people in the slave system. But Jacobs’ book is unique in that it describes first-hand the sexual indignities to which women were subjected in slavery. (Other accounts, such as those of Frederick Douglass, were written by men.) The book is also unusual in that Jacobs does not portray herself entirely as a hero but describes the nature of the steps she took to avoid becoming the sexual slave of Flint. Thus, when Flint subjected her to repeated sexual advances from the time Jacobs reached the age of 16, she tried to avoid him by beginning an affair with a white, single attorney with whom she had two children. When Flint’s advances persisted, Jacobs formed the determination to try to secure her freedom.

The bulk of the book describes how Jacobs hid precariously in a cramped attic for seven years waiting for the opporunity to secure her freedom. There are also accounts of her prior attempts to leave slavery, including a particularly harrowing account of several days in a place aptly named “Snaky Swamp.”

Jacobs describes her relationship with her grandmother, a free black woman who was probably the major inspiration of her life. She also describes well her love and concern for her children, conceived through the liasion with the white attorney.

This book offers a rare perspective on American slavery as it affected women. It is also a testament, I think, to the value of literacy and knowledge as an instrument for winning and preserving free human life. Although this story is not pretty, it is a testament to human persistence in the face of adversity and to the precious character of human freedom.

Poignant

By MarvelousMarla

This autobiographical condemnation of the south’s Peculiar Institution puts a face on the suffering of the enslaved. American history is full of accounts of slavery which tend to broad overviews of the institution, whereas this book is written by an escaped slave who does not flinch at sharing every detail of her miserable life. Unlike other narratives which distorted the slave’s voice through the perspective of the interviewers/authors who were notorious for exaggerating the uneducated slaves’ broken english, this book is largely Ms. Jacobs’ own words. She was taught to read and write as a child by a kind mistress, so she was able to put her thoughts on paper with clarity that surprised many. Ms. Jacobs had an editor, but this book seems to be her unfiltered view of the world.

It is one thing to hear about how slaveholders took liberties with female slaves, it is quite another to read in stark detail about women being commanded to lay down in fields, young girls being seduced and impregnated and their offspring sold to rid the slaveholder of the evidence of his licentiousness. The author talks about jealous white women, enraged by their husbands’ behavior, taking it out on the hapless slaves. The white women were seen as ladies, delicate creatures prone to fainting spells and hissy fits whereas the Black women were beasts of burden, objects of lust and contempt simultaneously. Some slave women resisted these lustful swine and were beaten badly because of it. It was quite a conundrum. To be sure, white women suffered under this disgusting system too, though not to the same degree as the female slaves who had no one to protect them and their virtue. Even the notion of a slave having virtue is mocked. The author rejected the slaveholder’s advances and dared to hope that she would be allowed to marry a free black man who loved and respected her. Not only was she not allowed to marry him, she was forbidden to see him or speak to him again.

The author shows us the depth of a mother’s love as she suffers mightily to see that her children are not also brought under the yoke of slavery. Though she was able to elude her odious master, she does take up with some other white man in hopes that he would be able to buy her freedom. Her “owner” refuses to sell her and tells her that she and her children are the property of his minor daughter. Her lover seems kind enough as he claims his children and offers to give them his name, and he did eventually buy them, though he failed to emancipate them to spare them from a life of forced servitude. Ms. Jacobs noted that slavery taught her not to trust the promises of white men. Having lived in town most of her life, Ms. Jacobs is sent to the plantation of her master’s cruel son to broken in after she continues to refuses his sexual advances. She is resigned to this fate until she learns that her children — who were never treated like slaves — were to be brought to the plantation also. It is then that she takes flight.

After enduring 7-years of confinement in cramped quarters under the roof of her grandmother’s house, the author escapes to the North which is not quite the haven she imagined. Still, it is better than the south, and she makes friends who buy her freedom leaving her both relieved and bitter that she is still seen as property to be bought and sold like livestock. In New York Ms. Jacobs is reunited with her children and a beloved brother who’d escaped a few years ago while accompanying his master — her former lover — to the free states.

There is no fairytale ending to this story because the author endures plenty of abuse and uncertainty even after she makes it to the North. She is hunted down by the relentless slaveowners who were aided by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and “The bloodhounds of the North.” This is a wrenching account of this shameful period of American history, and should be required reading for all.

Slavery: the Reality

By Robert J. Crawford

This is the book that brought home a dimension of slavery to me that I had never understood: the psychological repercussions of someone presuming that they can own someone else. Perhaps it had to be written by a woman, who was regarded as the sexual property of a horrible man.

The story of how she escapes and frustrates her “owner” is indeed enthralling, a triumph of human will in the worst adversity. She hid under the slanted roof of her mothers house for years, permanently injuring her back and watching he children grow up from afar. It is such a moving story that I imagined turning it into a play, with the narrator reminising of her life while hidden in that cramped space.

As this is a memoire, the characters in it are very very real, all too human and without the black-and-white quality of too many novels on this bizarre twist of American history. While the writing style is so superb that it had to have been edited by an expert writer, the story and voice are so vivid that it must be real.

I have given this book to literally dozens of friends, and almost to a one they have marvelled at the depth of the story. This is the best and most complete account of an aberration in American history of which we all must bear some sense of responsibilty.

Get this: it cannot disappoint.

Rare firsthand account of a slave girl

By Michael A Neulander

Harriet Jacobs book Life of a Slave Girl is a unique piece of slave literature directly from the pen of an articulate slave. One gets a sense of the poignant way she can retell the story of her enslavement from a passage she writes in the preface of her book.

. . . 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.”

Her story raises emotions of sentiment for a mother struggling to hold her family together, and it shines a light on the cruelties of slavery. The political sentiment at the time among the elites in the northern states was increasingly becoming antislavery. The political aspect of Jacob’s writing is not that of the highly stylized writings of famous abolitionists or of eminent blacks such as Frederick Douglass using reason and religion to condemn slavery. Jacob’s writing is visceral and down to earth. Her powerful argument against slavery pulls at the heartstrings of any sympathetic decent human being. In essence, Jacob’s story is one that resonates with people of all socio-economic backgrounds. It is no mystery why the hearts and minds of people are stirred to action after one reads Jacob’s disturbing accounts of sexual depravity, mental anguish, and the destruction of the family unit, that she endured as a slave. Her first person narrative account is what makes her book such a strong force of political sentiment in the genre of slave narrative. Since there were so few slave narratives in circulation at the time, it was easy for Jacob’s book to engender such strong political sentimentality.

Jacob’s ability to arouse aesthetic sentimentality in her audience was a bit tricky, because of the sexual decisions she had to make in her life. Deciding to have an elicit sexual relationship with an unmarried white neighbor to escape the depraved advances of her owner could be construed as Jacob’s being more interested in autonomy and less interested in chastity. Jacob has made it clear to her audience that it was her station in life that caused her to make what her white readers would consider an unconventional choice. Jacob’s plight as a slave caused her to choose freedom over trying to protect her chastity more strenuously. Since slavery took away almost all of her freedom and individuality, she was willing to trade her chastity for the freedom of choice. Jacob’s virginity was one of the few things she possessed that she was able to withhold from her owner. After going into detail for why she made her choice she still felt it was necessary to apologize to her “Victoria” audience for her decision. This act on her part was truly one of the few choices she had the ability to make while in slavery’s bondage. Thus, once Jacob’s white audience understood the dreadfully marginal position she occupied in society, most of them would feel compassion for her. This would make her audience more inclined to accept the choice she felt was necessary to make for her own well-being. Jacob’s decision over who she would give her sexual being to, was he only way of holding onto some semblance of individuality.

This was required reading for a graduate course in the Humanities. Recommended reading for anyone interested in history, psychology, philosophy, and literature.

Excellent Read

By Goddess Orchid

I wish everyone could read this book. Jacobs writes a story about herself as a Black American slave. Her tale brings the light the terror of people who can take power and abuse, as well, as the compassion of a people who take care of each other. In her writings she not only explains her experiences but also weaves her true tale of other experiences of slavery. She explains the differences between a black male slave and a black female slave experience. Both horrid but very different with the same outcome trauma. Anyone interested in understanding slavery should take the time to read her story. Her story is avaliable for free or a few dollars- and believe me it will be worth your time in doing so.

Before I stop writing, her writing is very visual and very well-written. She even explains how she learned to write so well.

Read it!

A must-read slave narrative

By Amanda L. Dellario

I was delighted to find this title here. I first read it as an undergrad and then later as a graduate student interested in slave narratives. Jacobs gives a highly sensitive insight into the inner psyche of the female slave. This work is not only of great importance as a member of the “slave narrative” genre, but also of women’s literature in general. It is wonderful to hear the highly femanized yet powerfully strong female voice of our narrator. Would be fantastic as a summer reading project for precocious teens along with Uncle Tom’s cabin and Frederick Douglass. Plus, it’s just a darned, good read!

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