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Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Originally posted October 28, 2013.

Harriet Jacobs lived a brutal and extraordinary life. Her story is appalling, sad, fascinating and inspiring all at once. Harriett’s life is all about the hardships of being a female piece of property. She writes intentionally in a women’s voice, highlighting gender issues. She hoped to appeal to free white women, to help them understand the abject cruelty of slavery and urgency of the abolitionist movement. Amy Post, an early feminist who attended the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, encouraged to tell her story. Amy Post was a Quaker and an active abolitionist.

This book is a true gem of early feminism and historical significance. I found it for $3.50 at the bookstore at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. First published in 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent, it’s one of the few personal accounts written by a woman born into slavery in the southern United States. There are hardly any first-person accounts from American slaves, as most didn’t read or write.

There are so many appalling stories of cruelty in this slim book, only 163 pages long. It’s hard to decide what to highlight here. The reality of the terrors of slave life were not taught to me in school.

Harriet’s graphic story depicts the reality of the particular horrors known to the female slave. As a female slave matures from a child into a teenager, her life changes. Whatever self-respect and dignity she might have tried to hang on to is stripped away as her womanly body is sought after by her owner. As she says:

“No pen can give an adequate description of the all pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear…When she is fourteen, her owner, his sons or the overseer, or all of them…bribe her …or whip or starve her into submission to their will…resistance is hopeless…”

Harriet shows us the the fate of all female slaves was the same. She explains the sequence of events. The laws pertaining to slaves protected the owners. When a slave becomes pregnant, she cannot say who the father is. No one can talk of it. It was actually a crime in the southern United States for a slave woman, in fact for any slave, to say who the father of her child was. A crime for which he or she could be beaten to death without a thought. When a slave women becomes pregnant, she is shamed by the community. The slaves are all afraid to speak of what they know is happening.

Once the baby is born to a slave woman, the baby is denied and rejected by the owner. There are layers of hate from the owner’s wife as she has lived with a constant humiliation from her husband, the property and slave owner. The owner’s wife will reject the slave woman and the baby as well. For the slave owner’s wives know what’s transpiring in their own homes and they are angry and jealous. But they are helpless to take action.

Back then, women couldn’t legally own money or property. Women were powerless. When a free white woman married, all she owned was turned over to her husband. The women’s powerlessness is displaced as anger and jealousy towards the slave girl. The mistress cruelly disdains the slave girl, beating her at will. The next step in servitude and humiliation is for the slave woman is being forced to wean her own baby and nourish the babies of her owner’s wife with her breastmilk. It is appalling and just a commonplace occurrence in the slave culture of the Southern United States.

Harriet’s life was extraordinary. She lived through things that most people couldn’t possibly endure. For the first six years of her life, Harriet didn’t know she was property, a slave. Her father was a skilled carpenter who was fortunate enough to be owned by a kindhearted mistress. She allowed him a special arrangement of paying her yearly. He was able to take a skilled work from around the countryside for which he was paid. So, for the first six years of her life, Harriett was unaware of the horrors of slave life.

Harriet’s mother’s owner was the daughter of Harriet’s maternal grandmother’s owner. Harriet’s mother was weaned at the age of three months to nurse her mistress’ baby. And these are the actions of exceptionally kind slave owners! The actions she described later of cruel slave owners made me despair for the human race.

Harriet’s mother passes away when she is 6. Harriet is then cared for by her maternal grandmother and her grandmother’s owner, who is kind to her. But you know, kindness in a slave owner is always framed in the context of the more heinous actions of others. Harriet is fed well, has a warm place to sleep, is taught to sew by her mistress and also given reading and writing lessons.

Unfortunately, when Harriet turns 12, her mistress dies. In her will, the mistress distributes her few slaves among her own family members.

At the age of 12, Harriet now belongs to the Flint family, specifically, a 5 year old girl, who is her mistress’s niece. Harriet’s grandmother and brother now also belong to the Flint family. They begin their life with Dr. and Mrs. Flint and their 5 year old girl. Dr. Flint thinks the grandmother is useless and immediately puts the 70 year old grandmother up on the auction block. Even the local white slave owning community is appalled at his callousness. Fortunately, an elderly white woman buys harriet’s grandmother and frees her.

Harriet finds out the Flint family doesn’t bother to actually feed their slaves. The house slaves have to catch what scraps they can from leftovers. And the slave don’t have beds. They must sleep on the floor.

For the first time, Harriet witnesses the abject horror of the cruelty of slave owners with Dr. Flint. For an unknown infraction, a slave from Dr. Flint’s plantation is brought to the house and hung by his arms, without his feet touching the ground. The doctor says he’s to stay there until he finished his tea time later that day. Hours later, the doctor comes out of his mansion and whips the man hundreds and hundreds of times. The area surrounding the slave is covered with blood and gore as the man screams and begs for his life. This is a regular occurrence.

In this modern day, I don’t have any idea how anyone could possibly be proud to hang a flag of the confederate southern Untied States. Slavery was/is a house of horrors.

The horrors of New Years Day is another aspect of slavery that wasn’t taught to me in school. Harriet asks the reader to contrast their New Year’s celebration with the slave’s experience. The time and day of great celebration for the whites was a horrific day for the slaves. It was sale day. New Year’s Eve was when slave mothers lay in dread, knowing they could lose all their children at once on New Year’s Day to the auction block.

In advance of New Year’s, slave owners who were known to be humane were thronged by slaves begging to be taken by them. The slaves knew who were the most cruel whites were within forty miles.

Harriet eventually escapes from the cruel Flint household to her grandmother’s small house. Amazingly, Harriet lives in a small underground space under the floor in her grandmother’s house, away from fresh air and sunlight. Harriett becomes misshapen as she is unable to stand up straight in there and endures severe illness. After seven years, she is able to access a hazardous passage to the North.

Once Harriet makes it to the North, she’s still in danger of being caught. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, allowed local authorities to capture and return runaway slaves anywhere in the territory of the United States and also levied punishments to those who aided the runaways. Dr. Flint had the right to search for her and just take her back. He came up to search for her on several occasions. She managed to keep herself hidden with the help of kind and brave women who worked secretly as abolitionists.

Are you wondering what was left out of your textbooks about this ugly part of American history? The story of American slavery? Read this riveting, informative, eye-opening story, written by the remarkable and brave Harriet Jacobs. There is so much more in this book, it’s an amazing piece of feminist historical significance.


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