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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

March 24, 2012


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. Dover Publications (2001), Paperback, 176 pages. Other editions available.

Jacobs’s own account of the years she spent in slavery, in hiding, and finally as a free woman in the North.

Slave narratives were critical for abolitionists seeking to exposed the reality of slavery to American citizens. The immediate, first-hand testimony was more powerful than any generalities. But fewer female slaves than male ones actually found their way to freedom. Even fewer wrote about the particular problems that slavery held for women both as sexual objects and as mothers. The rarity of slave narratives by women give Incidents special importance.

Jacob’s account of slavery was so well-written that for years, it was widely assumed to have been written by a white women devoted to the abolitionist cause, perhaps Lydia Marie Childs. Then in the 1990s, scholar Helen Yellen began researching the book. She found abundant evidence that Incidents was in fact written by an ex-slave woman as claimed, a woman who had perfected the style of white women authors. Yellen even identified details like the houses in Edenton, North Carolina, where Harriet lived, the attic in which she hid, and the Senator who fathered her child. The only part of Jacob’s narrative which seemed false were secondhand stories that she said had been told to her by others.

Of course, Harriet Jacobs was anything but a typical slave. She was privileged as a house slave who had few onerous duties. She could read and write. Her free grandmother lived near her master’s home and provided her with a refuge. But as readers see, even at its most privileged, slavery was a dehumanizing institution. Her grandmother could not ultimately protect her or her children. Her master’s sexual advances poisoned Jacob’s relationship with her master’s wife. Jacobs was determined to be free and to insure her children’s freedom. She tells how she eventually obtained that goal despite the dangers that followed her after her escape.

I strongly recommend Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative it is a book that all Americans should read if only to understand the roots of today’s ongoing problems concerning race. Besides, it is simply a very good read.

Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South
by Deborah Gray White.
An excellent study of slavery as experienced by women in the American south, based partly on slave narratives.

Six Women’s Slave Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews.
A collection of other narratives of slave women, part of the valuable Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.

Narrative, by Frederick Douglas.
The first, shortest edition of the slave narrative of an African-American male leader. A good parallel to Jacob’s.

EXPLANATORY NOTE: In publishing, Harriet Jacobs also used the name Linda Brent.

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