Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: A Review Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to show Northern free people what was actually happening to slaves. She hoped her eyewitness stories would convince them that they should speak up against slavery and unite in the effort to end it. She was especially interested in showing free white women the difference between her life and theirs. She wanted them to see that many things they took for granted were denied slave girls and women.
Jacobs was asking free people to look at slavery through her eyes and imagine the pain, both physical and emotional, that she and other slaves were forced to endure. Even though she was a slave, her first six years were happy ones. Her father had skills that made him valuable to the white people so he was allowed more freedom than the average slave. Her grandmother was the daughter of a slave holder. She was granted freedom but then recaptured. She was allowed to make money by selling crackers after her slave duties were done.
An injustice Jacobs describes early in her book is the pain suffered by slave families who are separated when one member is auctioned off to the highest bidder. She tells about this happening to her grandmother who helplessly watched as her son was auctioned off at the age of ten for $720. Jacobs knew the pain of a family being torn apart would weaken a free woman’s stand on slavery. Males were auctioned off more than females because owners were more likely to keep females as sex partners and to father children by them.
Slave owners made promises to slaves but never felt obligated to keep those promises. Jacobs’ grandmother had been promised freedom when her mistress died. The executor of the 2 estate, Dr. Flint, instead sold her for $70. In spite of what the will said, he got away with selling her because she was property and no one held him responsible for this unlawful act. She also was never repaid when she lent her life savings to her mistress. Two of the most chilling events Jacobs reports witnessing are on pages 15 and 16.
She tells of a male slave who was savagely beaten by Dr. Flint because the slave argued with his wife after finding out their child was really the son of Dr. Flint. She goes on to tell the story of a young slave girl in labor delivering her master’s child. The master’s wife stood by mocking the young girl as the newborn died. The slave girl’s mother watched as her only child also died during child birth. Jacobs wrote, “The poor black woman had but the one child, whose eyes she saw closing in death, while she thanked God for taking her away from the greater bitterness of life. Much of the book explains Harriet’s attempts to avoid Dr. Flint’s sexual advances. When she reached the age of 15 he began a relentless pursuit of her. She was disgusted by his attention. She did not want to lose her virginity to her master as she saw many other slave girls do. She prayed for a way to get away from him. She endured the jealousy of Dr. Flint’s wife who recognized what was going on. She was in love with a free black man but her master forbid her to have any contact with him. After she convinced her lover to go away, Harriet met Mr. Sands.
She became intimate with him in another effort to escape the unwanted advances of Dr. Flint. She had children with Sands but still was not able to get free. Eventually she ran away. She hid for 7 years in a cramped crawl space at her grandmother’s house. Jacob’s goes into detail about her escape to the North and the people who were kind enough to help her in her efforts to stay in contact with her family and to stay hidden from Dr. Flint. He continued his search for her until he died. Jacobs then hid from his family who began a search for her. Harriet learned she couldn’t depend on Mr.
Sands for help in getting their children 3 freed. She lived for a time with Isaac and Amy Post who were activists working for the Underground Railroad. Eventually a woman named Mrs. Bruce bought Harriet Jacobs from Flint’s children for $300 and she gave her her freedom. Her grandmother got to see Harriet free but died shortly after that. Harriet found out that her children, Emily and William, already knew things like who their real father was and where she had been hiding for all those years.
Jacobs is very graphic when she describes slavery and the terrible treatment of slaves. She is very good at detailing her thoughts and reactions to the horrible things she saw and experienced. She reminds free women that most women have the same dream of a loving husband, children and a happy home. She also makes it clear that only free women can live their dream. She often expresses the belief that slavery is worse than death. On page 47 she challenges doubtful readers to visit the South and witness the injustice of slavery for themselves.
I’m sure that the book does not include all the events that made Harriet Jacobs who she was. There were probably some good memories she could have shared but that would not have supported her argument or fulfilled her purpose. It is not clear to me why Dr. Flint was constantly asking for Harriet’s affection and never forced her to have sex with him. He did with other slave girls. I wonder if he actually loved her and wanted her to submit to him willingly. He also searched for her for many years until his death. Why didn’t he just rape her as he believed he had a right to?
This book is easy to read, interesting, and well written. I don’t really believe a slave could write that well though. I also doubt she could have lived in a crawl space for seven years without more serious physical and mental harm. Some things might have been exaggerated to accomplish the author’s goal. She succeeds in showing readers how unjust slavery was. It’s a good book because, even today, we need to be reminded about how ignorant, cruel and evil people can be. Not all of America’s history is good. We should never forget how the slaves suffered.