Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
by Harriet A. Jacobs
THE LITERARY WORK
A young slave woman runs away to free herself and her two children from bondage. After hiding for seven years in her grandmother’s house, she eventually unites with her family in the North and gains freedom.
Born into bondage in 1813, Harriet Jacobs endured the breakup of her immediate family more than once in her lifetime as a result of slavery. She suffered further from sexual advances made on her by her owner, took highly unusual steps to escape them, then documented her tale in an autobiography written to further the cause of the abolition movement in pre-Civil War America.
Slavery in North Carolina
In the early 1800s, the white population outnumbered the slave population in North Carolina by about two to one. Farms in this state tended to be small in comparison to some other parts of the South. Therefore, most of North Carolina’s farmers held fewer than ten slaves, although its larger landholders may have possessed up to twenty slaves and occasionally more. In 1827, two years after Harriet Jacobs became his slave, records show that Dr. Norcom submitted a tax statement that listed as his property nineteen blacks. Harriet Jacobs attributes an even larger number to him in her account, saying that he possessed “a fine residence in town, several farms, and about fifty slaves, besides hiring a number by the year” (Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 15).
North Carolina depended on slave labor mainly to grow cotton, tobacco, rice, grain, and livestock. Cotton was the favorite crop—it enjoyed a relatively long growing season, required minimal skill to cultivate, and exploited the labor potential of the entire slave family. Adults usually did the plowing; children as well as adults hoed the fields, all of them working in gangs under the watchful eye of an overseer. The arduous fieldwork sometimes encouraged slaves to seek better positions as house servants for their owners. Especially for women slaves, such a position was a mixed blessing that provided more comfortable living conditions but also brought them into closer proximity to their master and his sexual whims. The situation sometimes resulted in strained relations between a house slave and her mistress, an eventuality that Jacobs experienced.
Free blacks in North Carolina
Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother, her uncle, and the man she loved were all free blacks, who, despite the willingness of their former owners to release them, were on the whole feared and disliked. The owners worried that free blacks might help slaves plan revolts or run away. Mostly because of this concern, free blacks were constrained by legal restrictions. An 1826 law stated that a free black could not move into North Carolina. Those born and raised in the state were restricted in their activities. The authorities could arrest “any ablebodied free Negro found spending his or her time in idleness and dissipation, or having no regular or honest employment” (Bassett, p. 36).
By 1844 the North Carolina Supreme Court had ruled that the state would not regard its “free persons of color” as citizens. Free blacks in North Carolina, then, occupied a peculiar position in society—they were not slaves, but since they did not enjoy the rights of a citizen they were not entirely free. Thus, restricted although they were free, Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother, uncle, and beloved were nearly helpless in easing the plight of Harriet, a slave.
Seduction, concubinage, and rape
As elsewhere, North Carolina condoned certain standards of conduct among its people, whether they were free or enslaved. Young white women were encouraged to adopt a reserved Victorian standard of dress and social activity, reflected in frocks that barely showed their feet. In contrast, young slave women were often scantily dressed, not by their own choosing but by the nature of the provisions of their masters. As slaves, they could and often were stripped for inspection by possible purchasers (Sterling, p. 19). This double standard helps to explain why young female slaves often fell victim to the lust of their owners.
As in Jacobs’s case, often a slaveowner’s neighbor as well as the owner himself showed desire for a young slave woman. “The majority—and their sons, neighbors, overseers—held to a double standard that coupled veneration for white womanhood with the disrespect for black. House servants were particularly susceptible to sexual exploitation” (Sterling, p. 20).
Although slave mothers worried about their daughters, they could do very little to protect them. In her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs laments this fact; her own mother had long ago been separated from her children through slave sales. Consequently, as she matured and bore her own first child, Harriet records mixed emotions. She feels a strong love for her new baby daughter, but she also feels depressed at the thought of her anticipated fate.
When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier that it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.
(Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 71)
Rape of a slave was not considered a crime. White men often justified their actions by claiming that the women were, after all, their “property,” or that black women were more passionate than white and hence, more willing to comply with sexual demands. Whatever the justifications, slave women were frequently forced to submit to sexual mistreatment or punished for their refusal or resistance.
To Jacobs, her family was of the utmost importance. Her grandmother was her pillar of strength. Likewise, she depended on her uncle, aunt, and brother for emotional support. And her children gave her a reason for living. As she wrote, “My life was spared; and I was glad for the sake of my little ones. Had it not been for these ties to life, I should have been glad to be released by death” (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 78). The family, in fact, served as an important survival mechanism for slaves. They depended on the family unit for friendship and love, and to maintain their self-esteem.
Probably the most challenging aspect of slavery was the separation of the family. Although, many times, slaveowners tried to keep slave families together, this was not always possible, especially in the event of the death or debt of the slaveowner. In Jacobs’s case, her family was broken up when her first mistress died. Slave mothers worried constantly about their families suffering this fate, and in fact nearly one-third of all slave families were dissolved because the members were sold to separate owners. It is for this reason that the slave family was an unstable institution.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion
In North Carolina, as throughout the South, Nat Turner’s Rebellion marked a very crucial turning point for both slaves and slaveholders alike. Its significance can be measured by the fact that Jacobs’s autobiography devotes an entire chapter to this topic. Desperate for better treatment for blacks, a slave named Nat Turner led a band of six bondsmen in revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The slaves agreed to spare no whites and began by murdering Turner’s master and family. They then headed towards Jerusalem, the county seat. On the way they attracted seventy more slaves, and together the band killed a total of fifty-seven whites. By August 24, the Virginia militia managed to put down the insurrection. Almost all of Nat Turner’s rebels were captured or killed. Nat Turner himself escaped but then was captured on October 30. He was tried and then hung on November 11. The event left a searing impression, alarming slaveowners throughout the South and aggravating their constant fear of slave uprisings. Because of the Turner rebellion, Southern states passed more severe laws in attempts to control slaves. Slave schools, churches, and preachers were forbidden, for example. As one author notes,
After 1831 … the conditions of slavery [in North Carolina] became more severe. One law after another was passed which bore hardly on the slave, until at last he was bound hand, foot, and brain in the power of his master.
(Bassett, p. 7)
Fugitive Slave Law
Jacobs devotes another chapter in her autobiography to a second momentous development of her time—the Fugitive Slave Law. Two such laws had been passed since the inception of the nation, one in 1793 and the other in 1850, both devoted to the recapture and re-enslavement of runaways. Jacobs’s concern is with the more stringent 1850 federal law.
The annual number of slave escapes in Jacobs’s lifetime was relatively small but growing. By 1850 owners were threatened by as many as 1,000 successful slave escapes a year, with a total slave population of 4 million. This fact, as well as Congress’s obsession with preserving the balance between slave states and free states in the Union, had produced the new Fugitive Slave Law. Its stricter provisions gave courts the ability to issue warrants for the arrest of fugitives. Fugitive slaves could not testify on their own behalf nor were they allowed a trial by jury. Any person found aiding an escaped fugitive was subject to fines amounting to $2,000 and six months in jail. The law had a reverse effect in some places. Because its provisions were so stringent, many Northerners became more vigilant in helping runaways and the number of abolitionists increased.
By the time the new Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, Harriet Jacobs had escaped the South and was living as a paid helper to a woman in the North. In her autobiography, Jacobs reports that her employer, Mrs. Bruce (Mrs. Willis in the book) violated the new law to help Jacobs maintain her freedom from her old master. Mrs. Bruce’s reaction to the bounty-hunters’ pursuit of Jacobs reveals the passion that the Fugitive Slave Law elicited: “I will go to the State’s prison, rather than have any poor victim from my house, to be carried back to slavery” (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 194).
Despite such reactions from many whites, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 encouraged a flood of bounty hunters to search relentlessly through the North and South for escaped slaves. The highest rate of capture and return of fugitive slaves to their masters occurred in 1851.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs tells the story of her life through the character of Linda Brent. Born in 1813, she begins with her “happy” childhood as a house slave to a kind mistress while surrounded by loving parents and other family members. In these early years, her mistress teaches her how to read and sew. But at age twelve, this secure life changes. Both her father and her mistress die (her mother had died when Brent was six years old). Thereafter, Brent becomes the property of her mistress’s young niece, Mrs. Flint, and her husband, Dr. Flint. Her brother is purchased by this same family. Brent’s grandmother, through a kind benefactress, becomes a free woman.
At age fifteen, Brent becomes subject to Dr. Flint’s sexual advances. He is unrelenting in his pursuit of her, and the attention he pays to Brent causes Mrs. Flint to become jealous of the girl. Perhaps the suspicions of Mrs. Flint prevent the doctor from physically forcing himself on Brent. In any event, she is able to fend off her master’s attacks. Brent meanwhile falls in love with a free black who is a carpenter and wants to marry her. She asks Dr. Flint for permission and is heartbroken when he denies her request. Brent values her purity, but thinking it will stymie her master’s demands on her, she gives herself to a white neighbor, a bachelor named Mr. Sands. By the time Brent is nineteen, she has two children with Mr. Sands, a boy and a girl. Under slave law, the children become the property of Dr. Flint.
After the children are born, Dr. Flint renews his interest in Brent. He proposés to set her and her children up in a cottage. Brent refuses his offer and is subsequently sent to the plantation of Flint’s son, where she and her children are to be “broken in”—that is, forced to become subservient and submissive. In order to save herself and her children from the degradations of slavery, she devises a plan of escape. After hiding in
SOME MAIN CHARACTERS AND THEIR REAL-LIFE SOURCES
|Fictional Name||Actual Name|
|Linda Brent||Harriet Jacobs|
|Aunt Martha||Molly Horniblow, Jacobs’s grandmother|
|Willim||John S., Jacobs’s brother|
|Benny||Joseph, Jacobs’s son|
|Ellen||Louisa Matilda, Jacobs’s daughter|
|Dr Flint||Dr. James Norcom, Jacobs’s master from 1825 to 1851|
|Second Mrs. Bruce||Cornelia Grinnell Willis, second wife of Nathaniel Parker Willis, the woman responsible for liberating Jacobs from bondage|
various local places, she settles in a small attic space in a shed attached to her grandmother’s house. There she remains for almost seven years, tricking Dr. Flint into believing that she is living in the North. From her small space Brent is able to watch her children grow up. Her hope is that their father will purchase them from Dr. Flint, then set them free. Mr. Sands does, in fact, purchase his children but reneges on his promise to free them.
In 1842 Brent escapes to the North, where she makes several friends, including her new employers, the Bruces. Her children eventually join her in the North for a time, but she lives in continuing uneasiness because slavehunters pursue her. Brent manages to elude Dr. Flint’s slave-hunters for several years; still he continues to search for her and even upon his death his heirs carry on the pursuit of her. Mr. Bruce’s first wife, a kind employer, dies, whereupon her husband and young daughter visit England with Brent serving as the child’s caretaker. Brent returns to live in Boston for a couple of years, then takes a job again with Mr. Bruce in New York, who has remarried. Finally in 1852, Brent is purchased by Mr. Bruce’s second wife and set free.
During the time in which this autobiography takes place, slave narratives were gaining a wider readership than ever before. The first female slave narrative to be written in the United States was The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, published in 1831. Such narratives were often used by the abolitionist movement to promote their cause and illustrate the cruelties of slavery.
According to the historian Jean Yellin, Jacobs’s work resembles other slave narratives in that Jacobs claims “authorship in the subtitle … uses the first person, and addresses the subject of the oppression of chattel slavery and the struggle for freedom from the viewpoint of one who has been enslaved” (Yellin in Jacobs, p. xxvi). Likewise, as in other tales about slavery, the writer portrays herself as a black person struggling individually for freedom. However, Yellin points out that one striking difference in Jacobs’s work is that the main character, Linda Brent, does not quickly flee to the North, but instead spends several years in hiding. Jacobs’s narrative also differs from others in that it underscores the importance of family and motherhood, whereas Frederick Douglass’s well-known slave narrative, for example, focuses rather on freedom and literacy. The publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl marked a turning point in literary history in another important respect—it discussed the previously taboo subject of a woman’s sexual exploitation.
When this book was first published, there was no doubt about the authenticity of the document and the identity of the author. But as time passed, scholars either began to question the narrative’s accuracy or dismissed the tale completely. It was not until 1981 that Yellin discovered Jacobs’s letters to Amy Post, the antislavery worker who had encouraged Jacobs to share her tale with the public. Yellin authenticated the authorship of these letters, taking six years to document, reconstruct, and identify the characters and events in Incidents.
The controversy over slavery
Harriet Jacobs began to write about her unique experience in anonymous letters to the New York Tribune in 1853. Over the next few years, she turned the letters into a manuscript, completing the work in 1858. During this period, Jacobs was purchased by a friendly Northerner and freed. Such acts were inspired by the growing pressure of abolitionists to rid all of the United States of slavery. Proslavery forces remained strong at the same time, however, and tensions mounted that would ultimately lead to the Civil War. Aggravating these divisive strains was the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (also covered in Literature and Its Times).
HARRIET JACOBS VS. HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
At first Harriet Jacobs proposed that her sensational life story be written by Stowe, but Stowe outraged Jacobs by forwarding a sketch of Jacobs’s life (written by Jacobs’s Quaker friend Amy Post) to the woman for whom Jacobs worked at the time for verification of the facts. Jacobs had not shared the details of her sexual past with her employer, Mrs. Willis, and felt betrayed. If her story was true, said Stowe, an already renowned author by then, she would include it in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an offer that further outraged Jacobs, who regarded her story as an independent piece. She then decided to write the autobiography herself. “Poor as it may be, I had rather give [my story] from my own hand, than have it said that I employed others to do it for me” (Incident in the Lite or a Slave Girl, p. xix).
With the election of Franklin Pierce to the presidency in 1853 came additional strain. Pierce was a strong advocate of expansion of United States territory, and as the territories were settled, they would likely become states. This process created a feverish battle in Congress because a new state could potentially be either “free” or “slave,” either prohibiting slavery or allowing it; this determination was important because it threatened to upset the precarious balance of pro- and antislavery states that existed at the time. If there were more free states than slave states represented in Congress, it was thought likely that laws would be passed that were harmful to the institution of slavery—a frightening idea for Southern states. A similar process could take place if slave states became more numerous, with the difference that such an alignment would promote slavery and the other causes favorable to the South.
Congressional leader Stephen A. Douglas responded to this situation by proposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act, when enacted, split the old Nebraska Territory into two parts and left the issue of slavery up to the inhabitants of each part. The bill’s passage soon led to violence in Kansas as both pro- and antislavery supporters entered the state, attempting to influence the vote on slavery, and the two sides clashed. In 1855 the new Kansas Territory opted for slavery, but it was discovered that some of those who voted to permit bondage were actually residents of nearby Missouri. Violent incidents continued in the state, and in 1856 abolitionist John Brown led an attack that resulted in the brutal slaying of five members of the proslavery faction. In 1859 at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Brown led another violent raid that escalated tensions in the nation to a brittle pitch.
In this atmosphere, Harriet Jacobs found arranging for a publisher difficult. Jacobs first tried to publish her book in England and was initially unsuccessful. The two publishers who expressed interest in publishing it in the United States declared bankruptcy before the job could even be begun. It was not until 1861, therefore, that the book finally appeared in print in Boston, with an introduction by the prominent white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. The next year, the book was published in England under the title A Deeper Wrong. By that time, the Civil War was well under way in the United States.
At the time of its publication, Incidents in the Life of α Slave Girl was but one of many abolitionist tracts. Edited by Lydia Maria Child, the book reached the public through abolitionist channels. It was sold at the Anti-Slavery Offices in New York and Boston.
Early positive reviews of the work appeared in such abolitionist newspapers as The Liberator (February 8, 1861), Anti-Slavery Bugle (February 9, 1861), National Anti-Slavery Standard (February 16, 1861), and Weekly Anglo-African (April 13, 1861). The critic for the Anti-Slavery Advocate wrote on May 1, 1861, “We have read this book with no ordinary interest, for we are acquainted with the writer, we have heard of the incidence from her own lips, and have great confidence in her truthfulness and integrity” (Davis and Gates, p. 32). Reviewers generally endorsed Jacobs’s book for its truthfulness as well as its intriguing content.
Bassett, John Spencer. Slavery in the State of North Carolina. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1899.
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Campbell, Stanley Wallace. Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1966.
Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Slave’s Narraüve. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.
Zafar, Rafia, and Deborah Garfield. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.