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 indiduals 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.
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.
on March 5, 2002
I often believe it is easy to criticize nineteenth century Americans for not stepping up to the plate regarding the issue of slavery and race in America. Jefferson may well have agonized over the issue he called the "death knell of the nation" and which he labeled a "neccessary evil." Certainly he benefitted by the ownership of nearly 300 slaves, but he grew up in a world in which slavery was the norm. It takes a revoutionary and remarkable man to truly stand against the only world he knows and move to create a different world, so I usually defend Jefferson and his political vision which clearly transcended that world.
Reading Frederick Douglass, however, makes me wonder how anyone with firsthand knowledge of the institution could not see the obvious pain and cruelty which existed right in front of his or her eyes. Douglass's narrative, and particularly his descriptions of the slave trade in Baltimore and the obvious place of the whip (whether used or not) as the principal vehicle of social control argues most eloquently that though the slave system may have been a social norm, the blinders had to be unbelievably thick not to see the horrors that the institution wrought. The relationship of slave and master perpetuated a most un-American (at least in terms of our professed values--cf. Douglass's later antislavery orations) tyranny and oppression. Douglass's narrative testifies that our ancestors could have seen much more and done much more and that 600,000 lives and a subsequent 120 years of racial schism and pain was too much a price to bear for the peculiar institution.
on May 1, 2009
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.
on February 26, 2006
Frederick Douglass's auto biography is about him as a kid and partially as an adult. I think it is a good book because it describes the harshness of slavery. I also think it is an interesting way to be informed.
It is an excellent source of information. It has a vivid description of the work fields and how it feels to see a family member being ruthlessly whipped. It also gives you a feeling you are talking to Frederick himself. It suddenly makes you aware of the relationship between you and him. Everybody probably has a relation with him ranging from skin tones to hardship. We all have at least one if not 2or3 similarities.
I think that this book is not for children younger than 9 because it has intense parts about naughty haywire masters. It is for the type of person who likes history . When you are reading this book, you may understand why people started the civil war. I think it made people start the civil war because they read this book and got very angry at slavery. Also I think it made the masters mad. That may have also started the civil war
Nathaniel age 9
on March 14, 2002
This fiery autobiography, written as anti-slavery propaganda, told of his struggle to gain freedom, identified his "owner", and became a 19th century national bestseller. Long before Uncle Tom's Cabin opened the eyes of sentimental Northerners to the evils of slavery, Douglass' chronicle inspired the small abolitionist movement and challenged the conscience of the United States to live up to the heroic ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence... "all men are created equal."
The publication of this masterpiece also forced Douglass into exile in England for two years to avoid capture by slave traders. British supporters eventually "purchased" Douglass allowing this great American to return to the United States and live in freedom.
While the battle against slavery was won almost 150 years ago, this autobiography's remains a very powerful tool against racism, ignorance, and historical amnesia. Douglass links his quest for literacy with his need to be treated as a man - and become a free man. This book should be required reading, for all American schoolchildren, in the middle school and excerpts should be constantly used in high school and college courses. Adult literacy centers should find this story a powerful inspiration too.
on February 19, 2002
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.
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" (first published in 1845) and Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" (1861) are probably the two most powerful examples of the slave narrative. This literary form represents the first-person accounts of individuals who have lived as slaves. The Modern Library has paired these two essential American texts in a single edition, with an introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah and commentaries by Jean Fagan Yellin and Margaret Fuller.
Together, "Narrative" and "Incidents" offer a male and female perspective on the institution that has left lasting scars on America. These texts are well written, and rich in social and political insights. Both authors graphically illustrate, for example, how the Judeo-Christan Bible and the Christian church were used as tools to support the racist system of slavery. Douglass provides a powerful window into the importance of literacy as a tool by which he escaped a slave mentality. And Jacobs incisively deconstructs the twisted strands of race, gender, power, and sexuality that tied together slaveowning culture.
"Narrative" and "Incidents" are compelling pieces of literature. Moreover, the authors' themes can be seen as foundational for many later works of United States literature: Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Toni Morrison's "Beloved," Octavia Butler's "Kindred," and many other texts. Even a popular film like "The Matrix" echoes the slave narratives in some aspects.
Douglass and Jacobs are prime examples of writers who superbly combined literary craftsmanship with an intense political commitment. Their achievements make them crucial figures in the field of African-American studies. This combined edition of their outstanding books should be celebrated by teachers, students, reading groups, church study groups, and individual readers.
on December 14, 2001
Anyone who wishes to be considered at all educated in the history of the United States MUST read this book. The period of this history is absolutely critical to an understanding of the country both before and after that time, as well, obviously, as during that time. And without reading the account of this great American of his experiences, one can not, truly, understand that time period.
Granted, there will be those who will argue, "But why should we need to read an anti-slavery tract; there's no one alive now who would argue in favor of slavery, or deny that it was a great evil. To read a book whose primary purpose was to convince people of what is now considered obvious is pointless." But the same argument could be used to apply to reading a biography of George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. Most of the issues that were important to them are currently decided, and decided in their favor. Yet it is still considered neccessary for an educated American to have at least a passing idea of the history of their lives.
The same is true of Frederick Douglass. The man risked his life for freedom, just as surely as did Patrick Henry, or any of the founding fathers, and his history is just as much a part of this country as theirs is; further, it is worth seeing just how literate a man born in slavery, not only self-taught, but self-taught on the sly, against every effort of his oppressors to stifle his education, can be. His facility for language is frankly better than 90% of modern Americans of any color, in spite of virtually universal education. He was a great man, and deserves to be recognized as such.
on December 13, 2002
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent is a deeply touching narrative of a slave woman's journey through the heinous institution of slavery to her eventual emancipation. Through her description of bonded labor, the reader very poignantly realizes what it was like for millions of African Americans to be brutalized and ravaged by slavery. Written in 1861 to educate the Northerners, especially the women, about the evils of slavery, the autobiography is a harrowing account of a woman's life, what the author ironically calls her `adventures'. The abuse that the palpably intelligent and veracious author had to undergo has the power to humble every one of us even today.
Linda Brent was born as a slave in the household of a miraculously benevolent mistress. She lost her mother at the age of six, but her mistress, who was her mother's half-sister, took good care of her and endowed on her ward the gift of literacy. The degradative reality of slavery was hidden from the author till she entered her early teens, when within a year both her mistress and her father passed away, and she was acquired by the household of Dr. Flint. At his plantation, the author had to bear the full force of slavery. From this time to the author's eventual freedom, the reader gets a glimpse of the persecution that a slave had to face.
As mentioned above, the book was written to illustrate the depravity of slavery to people living in the North. It is striking to see how humbly, or even apologetically, the author has used her life to explain the circumstances of slavery. She has used fictitious names and concealed the names of places so as not to offend any person, black or white. As one reads the book, the author can definitely be identified as a pious and truthful person, and becomes easy to see why the author places so much emphasis on her secrecy. The book is not written to garner sympathy from readers, but to shock readers into the realities of slavery. It was an appeal to the people who the author thought had the power to defeat slavery to act on it.
The author's main argument is that slavery is not just about perpetual bondage, but it involves the absolute debasement of a people. She painfully acknowledges that the `black man is inferior', but vociferously argues that it is a result of slavery, which stymies the intellectual capacity of her race. She believes that `white men compel' the black race to be ignorant. Although she was wronged by many Southern white men, she does not blame the white race for her ills. She believes that the institution of slavery has ample negative impact on the household and psyche of a white family as well, and that white males are coerced into being brutal. She rebukes `the Free States' in her own pacific way for condoning slavery in the South. Her stand is that a life of manumit destitution is radically more acceptable than bondage, and that is the general idea that the author wants the readers to remember.
The book is sequenced more or less in a chronological order. The author's astoundingly comfortable childhood is shattered by the nefarious demands of being a pubescent female slave. She explains how even the body of a slave is not her own, and is considered to be a property of the slaveholder, that can violated or abused according to his wishes. Her analogy to being traded or shot like pigs demonstrates the extent of shame that a slave had to bear with. Her infatuation and blind faith in the goodness of a white man make her the mother of two children, and her determination to keep them away from the evils of slavery becomes her primary goal. In her attempts to flee from slavery, she has to hide in a den above her grandmother's house for seven years. The anguish of a mother who can see her children but not be able to communicate with them is heart wrenching. The story of her escape to the North is also incredible. Even after reaching the north, she had to resist prejudice and fear for a long time before she and her children eventually became free.
By reading the book, the reader can definitely get to experience the life of a slave. Perhaps the shocking brutality of the truth is shielded in the book by the author's conscious effort to not be a cause of affront. She wrote this book because she had a message to give to the readers, but was held back in a way by her goodness. On the other hand, reading a book written in a simple way, as though the author was narrating her story in front of the reader, goes on to validate her tragedy. It is explained in a more personal way than a historian would explain it, and the harsh emotions experienced by the author break through, even though she tries to suppress her sadness. The author's argument that slavery is humiliating is proved by the fact that the author does not explain exactly how she was mentally and physically abused. She only points out that she had to bear physical and mental decadence, but does elaborate on the techniques of the likes of Dr. Flint.
It has to be remembered that this book was not written to be a historical text. It is about a woman's personal fight with slavery. It cannot be argued that her emotions were wrong or that her views about slavery can be challenged in any way. Readers who have not experienced slavery are not in a position to do so. This book definitely manages to do what it was intended to do, and that is to make the reader aware that slavery was a harrowing experience for the African Americans. As a book of past injustices and future hopes, it is a must read.