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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

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Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonymous name “Linda Brent” in the middle of the 1800’s, before the emancipation proclamation, hoping to stir anti-slavery sentiment. She succeeded. Her story is not only riveting, but has had a lasting impact as one of the preeminent classic slave narratives by survivors of U.S. slavery. It was one of the first autobiographical accounts written by a female slave, and as such it was especially powerful for its revelation of the systemic sexual abuse endured by women under slavery, from which no one who read it could continue to turn a blind eye.

As a young child, Harriet lived what she deemed a comfortable life with her mother. When her mother died, she was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew. But then her mistress died too, and at the age of twelve Harriet was left to her mistress’ five year old niece. As it was, the niece’s father became Harriet’s master, and though she was considered “lucky” because he was doctor and so had a reputation to uphold as a “decent” master (one who is not liberal with lashings, who is discreet about sexual discrepancies), he consistently abused and manipulated Harriet. Not only was Harriet forced to deal with her master’s unrelenting assaults, but she had to contend with his jealous, vindictive wife as well.

By what she considered her only means of resistance at the time, Harriet had an affair with a white man unconnected to her master’s family, gave birth to two children, and hoped that he would buy, then free, the three of them. This did not happen, so while her children grew up with their freed great-grandmother, Harriet ran away and hid in a crawlspace in the same grandmother’s shed–a four by seven foot area, three feet tall at it’s highest point–for seven years. She then makes a miraculous escape to the north and arranges meet-ups for her children there. They’re grateful to be together at last, but hardships persist and they are not altogether free for some years more.

With this account, Harriet Jacobs relays her experiences as a woman under slavery, particularly as a mother. It is a good companion read to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, which I read a few months ago, and it focuses more on the effects that the slave system had on bonded families than does Frederick Douglass’ account. As slaves did not have a right to family, it is an especially harrowing perspective, and Jacobs shows us the ways in which bonded families were a point of attack by those who willed them to remain disempowered. For in family there is love, and in love there is power.

And that is what reading Harriet Jacobs made me remember. Thank you, Harriet.

Written by Emily Jane

June 28, 2010 at 4:50 am