Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
After reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, I wanted to read a slave narrative from a woman’s perspective as well, since female slaves faced their own unique set of horrors including sexual abuse and motherhood in the midst of bondage that wouldn’t be typically found in a male slave’s accounting. After doing some cursory research, Harriet Jacobs’ book seemed to be the most frequently-recommended, though of course there are countless others that would have no-doubt proved worthy as well.
What makes her account all the more heartbreaking is that Jacobs seemed to have, by her own admission, a relatively happy childhood despite her enslavement. She writes, "[We] lived together in a comfortable home and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed that I was a piece of merchandise."
As was so often the case, however, once Jacobs began to mature physically, her situation changed profoundly. Though her legal mistress was a three-year-old child, the girl’s father, Dr. James Norcom was her de-facto master. In the book, Jacobs refers to this man as Dr. Flint and herself as Linda Brent. For ease of reading, I’ll refer to those in the book as their fictional names henceforth.
Much of the first half of the book details Linda’s daily torments by Dr. Flint as he tries repeatedly to force himself on her while torturing her with threats and psychological manipulation when she resists (Linda in turn engages in some brilliant psychological warfare of her own.) Out of desperation, Linda begins a relationship with a white neighbor, eventually having two children with him, Benny and Ellen. Though she hoped this would drive Dr. Flint to sell her and her children to her lover out of anger, he only responds by sending her to his son’s plantation to be “broken” instead.
Miserable at her new household, and desperate and afraid for her children’s future, Linda escapes, hiding herself in her grandmother’s attic where she resides for an astonishing seven years as she watches her children grow up through a crack in the side of the backyard cabin.
The story continues through a myriad of twists and turns until Linda finally escapes to the north where her children are residing after having been sold to a slave-trader that was secretly representing her children’s father, Mr. Sands.
Eventually, she is hired by a sympathetic family that manages to buy her freedom, but not before her grown son escapes to California and her daughter is sent to boarding school for her own protection amidst the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Linda’s struggle to simply exist, to care for her children, to earn a wage; in short, to live free, is exceptionally told and surprisingly readable for a book published in 1861. However, Jacobs’ insistence on writing her story in the style of sentimental novels of the era and her use of pseudonyms throughout, led the book to be generally accepted as a work of fiction all the way up until the 1970s when historian and African-American history scholar, Jean Fagin Yellin began researching the text’s true author (it was, at the time, assumed to have been written by Harriet Beecher Stowe). Yellin eventually uncovered the truth behind the supposed novel; that it was actually an autobiography of its true author, Harriot Jacobs.
I found Jacobs’ book to be exceptionally compelling and its story and imagery has really stuck with me over time. It gave me deeper insight into the experiences of female slaves of the era, and I was profoundly moved by Jacobs’ tenacity, spirit and struggle for freedom as well as her relentless pursuit of salvation for the children she cherished.