Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897) completed the manuscript for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself in 1858. Jean Fagan Yellin and others have discussed the uphill struggle Jacobs faced in securing publication of her narrative. After its editor, Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), failed to persuade the American Anti-Slavery Society to publish Incidents, the Boston publishers Thayer and Eldridge agreed to publish it, only to succumb to bankruptcy before they could complete the transaction. Incidents was finally published "for the author," in 1861 in Boston and in 1862 by William Tweedie in London, as The Deeper Wrong: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.
When Incidents initially appeared, it garnered a number of endorsements, and several of these are contained in Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster's coedited Norton critical edition of the narrative. The black antislavery activist William C. Nell, in a 21 July 1861 letter to William Lloyd Garrison, the white editor of the antislavery periodical The Liberator, described Incidents as a "handsome volume of 306 pages" that "presents features more attractive than many of its predecessors purporting to be histories of slave life in America" (p. 161). He added in his glowing endorsement of Jacobs's work that her words "shine by the luster of their own truthfulness—a rhetoric which always commends itself to the wise head and honest heart" (p. 161). Nell concluded with the hope that the narrative would "find its way into every family, where all, especially mothers and daughters, may learn yet more of the barbarism of American slavery and the character of its victims" (pp. 161–162). In a 4 April 1861 letter to the poet and antislavery advocate John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), Lydia Maria Child expressed joy that the former enjoyed reading the narrative; unsigned letters in the 9 February 1861 Anti-Slavery Bugle and the 11 January 1862 Christian Recorder also endorsed Incidents (see McKay and Foster, pp. 162–165).
Yellin's research into the narrative's background proved that "Linda Brent" was indeed Harriet Jacobs (or Hatty), formerly of Edenton, North Carolina. Yellin published her scholarly edition of Incidents in 1987, and it includes photographs and portraits of some of the people associated with the text including one thought to be that of Dr. James Norcom (Jacobs's chief persecutor). The volume also includes a copy of a codicil to Margaret Horniblow's will (dated 3 July 1825) leaving Harriet to her three-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. Other documents include the notice posting a one-hundred-dollar reward for Harriet Jacobs's capture and return, Hannah Pritchard's 10 April 1828 petition for the emancipation of Jacobs's grandmother Molly Horniblow, and letters, maps, and a drawing of the crawl space Jacobs lived in for almost seven years.
INCIDENTS AND THE SLAVE NARRATIVE TRADITION
Incidents deals primarily with the period of Jacobs's life from her early teens in Edenton through her late twenties when she arrived in Philadelphia. The body of the narrative is composed of forty-one chapters whose titles range from "Childhood" to "Free at Last." Appearing in print the year that marked the beginning of the Civil War, Incidents (and its author) had fallen into obscurity by the twentieth century. As Yellin notes, the book's reappearance around 1973 (largely a result of the efforts of mid-century civil rights activism) generated scholarly debate about the narrative's authenticity and validity. Part of the skepticism can be attributed to Jacobs's novelization of her life story and her use of the pseudonymous narrator Linda Brent. In composing Incidents, Jacobs borrowed conventions and narrative strategies from two popular nineteenth-century literary forms: the women's domestic sentimental novel and the autobiographical narrative of a journey from slavery to freedom (the slave, or freedom, narrative). Jacobs's story fits easily into the freedom narrative subgenre of African American literature, and as such its serves also as a political document that indicts the American justice system for its complicity in the many deprivations and abuses associated with chattel slavery. In addition, the narrative serves as an historical document that contains numerous references to actual historic landmarks, events, and persons. It has become a staple of courses in literature, gender studies, and history.
The major difference between Incidents and other autobiographical narratives about slavery, especially male-authored narratives, is its consistent, sustained engagement with the issue of sexual and reproductive exploitation. While other narrators, such as Elizabeth Keckley in Behind the Scenes (1868) and Frederick Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), broached the subject of sexual and reproductive exploitation under slavery, Jacobs stands alone in her almost total dedication of Incidents to the issue and the manner in which it fostered black family disruption. Indeed, the narrative's "plot" turns on this central issue. Jacobs wrote and published Incidents during an era when the (white and middle-class) "true woman" was expected to exhibit ideals of domesticity, piety, submissiveness, and chastity. Jacobs used Incidents to critique true womanhood ideology and to proffer a revised definition of womanhood within the constraints of the domestic novel form. Claudia Tate has explored Jacobs's manipulation of the domestic sentimental novel form to tell a story peculiar to the social (and domestic) concerns of enslaved black women. Jacobs represents Linda as a resistant heroine expressing feminine virtues through her acts of courage, cunning, and self-determination. In the end, notes Tate, Jacobs manipulates the conventions of both the women's domestic sentimental novel and the African American freedom narrative by telling a gendered story peculiar to an enslaved black woman. Jacobs's casting of her heroine as a seducer actually subverts a convention of the women's domestic novel, and while marriage usually represented the ultimate happiness for the heroine of the domestic sentimental novel, Linda expresses instead a desire for a domicile, or home, for herself and her children.
Because it is first and foremost an antebellum freedom narrative, Incidents comes with an accompanying set of authenticating documents that certify it as genuine, as having been written by the author, and as containing a true account of the narrator's experiences. Such documents (often, but not always, written by prominent white citizens) include letters, prefaces, introductions, or simple statements preceding or appended to the body of a freedom narrative. Jacobs wrote her own preface for Incidents, and it precedes the introduction by the white abolitionist editor Lydia Maria Child. Completing the authenticating machinery is an appended letter from the well-known white antislavery feminist (and former Quaker) Amy Post and a short statement signed by another antislavery advocate, George W. Lowther.
Jacobs explains in the first paragraph of her preface that she changed the names of people and places in Incidents because she "deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course" (p. 1). She refers to her children, Louisa Matilda and Joseph Jacobs, as Ellen and Benny. Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, and brother John S. Jacobs become Aunt Marthy (or grandmother) and William, respectively. The aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Flint were James Norcom and Mary Matilda Horniblow Norcom, and Mr. Sands (Linda's white lover) was, in reality, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. The Bruces were Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867), a well-known American writer, and his first and second wives, Mary Stace Willis and Cornelia Grinnell Willis; Jacobs performed domestic work in their home.
The body of Incidents comports with the structure typical to antebellum freedom narratives, which Frances Smith Foster outlines in Witnessing Slavery. The freedom narrative begins with a summary of Linda Brent's childhood and culminates in her awareness around the age of six that she was chattel. Next follows a carefully crafted depiction of American chattel slavery as an evil institution that reduced human beings to the status of property by stripping them of natural and other rights routinely enjoyed by their oppressors. In this task Jacobs/Brent follows to some degree Frederick Douglass's rhetorical strategy in his Narrative, recounting numerous deprivations of tangible and intangible property, horrendous physical abuses, and general life-and self-destroying practices that were part and parcel of the everyday operations of the evil institution. She includes information about her sexual persecution as well as her sexual agency, and she recalls the events leading to her decision finally to take flight, a decision that is tied to the central issue of family disruption under slavery. She continues by sharing the story of her subsequent escape (which includes almost seven years hiding in a crawl space over her grandmother's porch), and, finally, she expresses her feelings about having arrived in the North, the promised land.
Closer scrutiny of the narrative reveals that after being orphaned in early adolescence (Jacobs's mother, Delilah, and father, Daniel, died in 1819 and 1826 respectively) and left by her "kindly" mistress (Margaret Horniblow, who died in 1825) to a three-year-old daughter of the Flints, Linda began serving the elder Flints. Later, Dr. Flint began his sexual stalking of her. Jacobs represents Flint as the personification of the moral hypocrisy inherent in the so-called Christian slaveholder, and he serves as a vehicle through which Jacobs critiques the slaveholder's perversion of true Christianity—again, in a manner similar to that of Douglass in his 1845 narrative. When Linda develops a romantic interest in a free man of color, Flint strongly condemns and forbids the relationship; Linda also realizes that a liaison with the black man would mean that by law their children would be considered slaves. Flint reminds her that he owns her and can do with her as he wishes; despite her resistance, he continues to demand her complete submission to his will. When Linda learns that Flint is building a concubine's cottage for her, she initiates an affair with a single white neighbor, Mr. Sands. Aware that slavery precludes bondwomen from aspiring to the ideals of true womanhood by forcing them to be sexual in one way or the other, the narrator tells her readers that it was preferable to choose Sands rather than be compelled to submit to Flint. Ultimately motherhood and a mother's desire to protect her children by removing them from slavery's grip serve as the impetus for
A number of historical figures and organizations are associated with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ranging from people in Jacobs's life who are pseudonymously represented in the narrative to antislavery advocates who played important roles in the book's publication and dissemination.
- Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880):
- Born Lydia Maria Francis in Medford, Massachusetts, Child became a well-known author and antislavery activist. Her published fiction and nonfiction works include Hobomok (1824), The Frugal Housewife (1829), The Mother's Book (1831), The Little Girl's Own Book (1831), An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery (1835), AntiSlavery Catechism (1836), The Family Nurse (1837), Philothea (1836), Letters from New York (1843–1845), Flowers for Children (1844–1847), Fact and Fiction (1846), The Progress of Religious Ideas (1855), a biography of the Quaker Isaac T. Hopper, and several other volumes. Child served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and her husband, David, edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard between 1841 and 1844.
- American Anti-Slavery Society (1833–1870):
- Both Jacobs and her brother John S. Jacobs were affiliated with the society. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833 with the Abolition of Slavery Act, and that same year, William Lloyd Garrison and others formed the largest organization of antislavery activists in the United States, the American AntiSlavery League, which became the American Anti-Slavery Society. The organization spawned some 2,000 auxiliary societies, its membership soaring to between 150,000 and 200,000 before it was officially disbanded in 1870. Sponsoring a variety of antislavery activities including lectures, meetings, journals, and petitions to Congress, the society was a well-organized and consistent collective voice calling for an immediate end to slavery in the decades leading to the Civil War.
- George W. Lowther (1822–1898):
- One of Jacobs's northern antislavery activist friends, Lowther had grown up in Edenton, North Carolina. He was emancipated as a young man and moved to Massachusetts, where he was elected to the state house of representatives in the 1870s.
- John S. Jacobs (1815–1875):
- The brother Jacobs refers to as William in Incidents became a well-known antislavery activist and published an autobiographical account of his life in A True Tale of Slavery.
- Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (1800–1865):
- Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, referred to as Mr. Sands in Incidents, was a U.S. representative from North Carolina born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1800. He attended both Edenton Academy and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sawyer fathered Harriet Ann Jacobs's two children, Joseph (in 1829) and Louisa Matilda (in 1833). A lawyer by trade, he served in the state legislature between 1829 and 1834. As Jacobs notes in her narrative, he was elected to Congress on the Whig ticket; he served from 1837 to 1839, chairing the Committee on Expenditures on Public Buildings. Failing in his bid for reelection, Sawyer moved to Virginia and resumed his law practice; during the Civil War, he served as a major in the Confederate service and died in New Jersey in 1865.
Linda's decision to take flight. She escapes with the help of friends and neighbors, both black and white. Sands purchases Linda's (and his) children (though he does not immediately manumit them), and, after overcoming logistical and other obstacles, mother and children are reunited in the North. There Brent becomes part of the antislavery community, gaining the support of antislavery activists and subsequently being persuaded to write her story.
HISTORICAL REFERENCES: THE BLACK CHURCH AND NAT TURNER'S REVOLT
In chapter 31, "Incidents in Philadelphia," Brent recalls that upon arriving at the North, she was introduced to the Reverend Jeremiah Durham of the Bethel Church. Here she uses the real name of an antislavery activist minister who was affiliated with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at the time. The historical reference serves as a site of memory in Jacobs's narrative, a landmark pointing not only to the historic black Church (in terms of a continuous religious and spiritual tradition) in America but also to one of the oldest black churches in America. Founded by Richard Allen and a delegation of formerly enslaved persons in 1794 in response to their growing impatience and outrage with the racism they experienced in the white-dominated Methodist Church in Philadelphia, the church's first and subsequent structures were built at Sixth and Lombard, the property serving as the oldest property in the United States continuously owned by African Americans. (The current structure was built in 1889–1890.) Bethel served during the antebellum period as part of the Underground Railroad network. In addition to Richard Allen, who went on to become the first ordained black Methodist bishop in the United States, a number of other famous Americans, including Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad conductor William Still, the black female preacher Jarena Lee, and the white feminist activist Lucretia Mott, have been affiliated with the church. In 1830 Bethel served as the site for the first national convention of black Americans. Jacobs's insertion of Bethel Church into her personal story as a major historic landmark, her depiction of her grandmother as a devout Christian and her personal touchstone for morality, and the discourse on religion and spirituality (particularly in the chapter titled "The Church and Slavery") that permeates her narrative all underscore the seminal roles of the church and religious practice in individual and collective African American experience.
Interestingly, the chapter immediately preceding "The Church and Slavery" is titled "Fear of Insurrection" and begins with the following statement: "Not far from this time Nat Turner's insurrection broke out; and the news threw our town into great commotion" (p. 63). The narrator explains that the usual yearly "muster" (a procession of musketed white men, gentry and peasant alike, in full military regalia or plain clothes) had already passed when Nat Turner's Southampton County, Virginia, rebellion occurred in late August 1831. Turner and his followers, numbering some sixty in all, managed to kill fifty-five whites (beginning with Turner's owner's family) before the rebellion was suppressed. In response to the Turner-led rebellion, hundreds of black Americans in the areas near the rebellion site were massacred. Though Nat Turner initially avoided capture, he was subsequently arrested on 31 October 1831, tried on 5 November, and executed on 11 November. Brent tells us that because Edenton was only about sixty miles south of the rebellion site, the event occasioned another muster that year. She recalls the mobilization: "Far as my eye could reach, it rested on a motley crowd of soldiers. Drums and fifes were discoursing martial music. The men were divided into companies of sixteen, each headed by a captain. Orders were given, and the wild scouts rushed in every direction, wherever a colored face was to be found" (pp. 63–64). Brent describes a climate of fear in which black dwellings were entered and searched, oftentimes with "low whites" appropriating items of property and inflicting abuses on men, women, and children, who were "whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet" (p. 64). The local meetinghouse that served as the black church was destroyed, and blacks who wanted to attend church were forced to sit in the galleries of white churches. In the chapter that follows, "The Church and Slavery," the narrator continues with a discussion of the impact that the Turner rebellion had on religious instruction of enslaved persons, with masters and ministers working in concert to instill blacks with principles of obedience and docile acceptance of their status as slaves. Jacobs thus provides in these two chapters an eyewitness account of events surrounding the aftermath of a major historic event that had widespread social and legal implications for slavery's beneficiaries and victims alike.
SLAVERY AND AMERICAN LAW
Like other formerly enslaved narrators, Jacobs also focuses on the manner in which American law worked to keep slavery (and racial discrimination) in place. She immediately offers a discourse on the expropriations that were part of the system of slavery. While she clearly advances the idea that human beings should be paid for their labor and that they are entitled to whatever tangible property they earn through their own efforts, she also gives equal consideration to intangible property in the control over her sexuality and the general well-being of herself and her children. She continues her engagement with American law, particularly its complicity in the sexual and reproductive lives of enslaved women, by expressing her disdain for laws that make human beings the property of slaveholders. For Linda Brent this means saying no to Flint's claim of ownership of her mind, body, and offspring. Included in Flint's legally sanctioned claim is, among other things, the right to own Linda's sexuality, but as Jacobs reveals, it is not merely a matter of sexual submission. Linda felt deprived of her "light heart" by Flint's shadowing of her (p. 28) and of her "pride of character" and virtue by Flint's persecution of her (p. 31). She knew that Flint "was well aware" of how much she "prized her refuge by the side" of her old aunt, and "he determined to dispossess" her of that refuge (p. 33; emphasis added). Flint also deprives Linda of the right to choose her own lover with his threat concerning the free black man she wants to marry. In short, as representative slave master, he robs her of general well-being and peace of mind, and thus Jacobs uses her narrative to document the less easily seen psychological abuses of slavery along with the more visible physical abuses and deprivations. Indeed, it serves as eyewitness testimony and analysis of specific aspects of America's past. Incidents, clearly addressed to other (primarily white, northern) women, depicts Linda Brent's pragmatic and deft negotiation of the impossible space within which slavery forced her and other bondwomen to exist and operate. Harriet Jacobs's determination to resist the laws supporting slavery is captured in Brent's reversal of the language of the famous Dred Scott decision of 1857; she states that she regarded laws making her and her children chattel as "the regulations of robbers, who had no rights that" she "was bound to respect" (p. 187).
Though we tend to date Jim Crow segregation laws as beginning in the late 1800s, near the end of chapter 31 Brent describes a trip on a segregated public conveyance. The experience takes place shortly after her arrival in Philadelphia in 1842. She muses that it was "the first chill" to her "enthusiasm about the Free States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but there they were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery" (pp. 162–163). Most noticeably in regard to American law, she delivers through her own story a resounding indictment of the U.S. government for passing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Jacobs titles chapter 40 "The Fugitive Slave Law" and uses that space to reflect on the injustice of the law. After her arrival in the North, her struggle continues because under the law she could be captured and returned to slavery. Jacobs writes that she and her brother spent most of their time together talking of the
distress brought on our oppressed people by the passage of this iniquitous law . . . What a disgrace to a city calling itself free, that inhabitants, guiltless of offence, and seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection." (P. 191)
Her employer Cornelia Grinnell Willis purchased Harriet Jacobs from the Norcom family in 1852, ending Jacobs's fear of being captured and returned to slavery but leaving her with a sense of duty to Willis and anguish about the pecuniary means by which her freedom had been gained.
Though Harriet Ann Jacobs began her life in North Carolina slavery, she is now a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. In 2004 Yellin published the biography Harriet Jacobs: A Life, which documents, among other things, Jacobs's decision process in regard to the form her narrative would take. Yellin presents and expands on the life represented in Incidents in three parts: "Hatty: Private Dreams of Freedom and a Home"; "Linda: Public Dreams of Freedom and a Home"; and "Mrs. Jacobs: Public Demands for Freedom and Homes." The first part focuses on Jacobs's life in North Carolina; the second part focuses on Incidents, the public document; and the third part represents Jacobs the author and activist in her personal, social, and political milieus beyond slavery and the Civil War. Harriet Jacobs: A Life thus expands richly on our portrait of Harriet Jacobs—both in her southern and northern milieus—and Incidents has become a staple text not only for courses in African American literature but also for courses in gender and women's studies and American history.
See alsoAutobiography; Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law; Domestic Fiction; Female Authorship; Feminism; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Slave Narratives; Slave Rebellions; Slavery
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Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,Written by Herself. 1861. Norton critical edition. Edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: Norton, 2001.
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Smith, Valerie. "'Loopholes of Retreat': Architecture and Ideology in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., pp. 212–226. New York: Meridian, 1990.
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"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/incidents-life-slave-girl
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