Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has been used throughout history since it was written as an integral piece of the historiography of slavery, women in slavery, and resistance to slavery. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography which traces Harriet Jacobs’ life born into slavery through adulthood, and eventual freedom from slavery, focuses on her vivid account of life in bondage as well as those in bondage around her. She states in the preface: “But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what slavery really is.” Incidents, relatively unknown when it was published during a post-war period, became very well-known and a definitive text on enslaved women in the south. Jacobs, during the penning of her manuscript, was not just familiar with the literacy genres of her time, she also lived with a poet and writer during this time. While Jacobs claims that she wrote Incidents by herself, it was also modified by an editor as fuel for the anti-slavery movement, and to capture a specific audience. However, the publication of this autobiography in association with the clarity with which Jacobs writes gives reason to question its complete factualness. Jacobs changed or withheld names, which is required for greater research to confirm the account and was something that wasn’t done in slave narratives such as 12 Years a Slave. Another document penned just a few years later by an African-American male, does not withhold the names.
A Letter “To My Old Master”, written by Jourdon Anderson, is not afraid to come outright with names simply because Jourdan does not have to worry about being sent back to his old master if it is found where he is currently at. “[We] have a comfortable home for Mandy – the folks call her Mrs. Anderson – and the children – Milly, Jane, and Grundy – go to school and are learning well.” Slavery, then and now, no matter how you look at it, is considered by all but a few as negligent thoughtlessness towards others who simply look different than most of the population at that time in that area (the United States from the 1700s to the 1860s). Many times, the master of the slaves would rape their slaves. Jacobs talks about this extensively throughout her narrative. Most of the narrative focuses on Jacobs relationship with sexuality, in a way that had not been written about before. This is the complex, and at times frightening, reality of sexual violence dealt to the slaves, commonly mixed with the feminine ideal of chastity, purity and submission which makes Incidents a ground-breaking narrative for the time, and even to modern readers. The sexual predations of slave masters were well known among the mistresses, and slave women, but were not discussed. Jacobs discusses these predations, and the terrible cost to the bondwomen that they caused, not only physical, but mentally. Jacobs describes the situation which she faced: “But now I entered on my fifteenth year – a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl.
My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt…he was my master.” Jacobs managed to avoid rape primarily because her grandmother was highly regarded in the town, and because Jacobs made the difficult decision to accept sexual advances from another man. She gave birth to her first child, a little boy born premature and very ill and the only doctor that could treat her was Dr. Flint. He treated her, and she refused him as much as possible, but she and Benny lived. Three years later, she had a daughter named Ellen which angered Dr. Flint even more and when Dr. Flint was striking her, he ran to cling to his mother to which Dr. Flint knocked the child all the way across the room which nearly killed him. Jacobs use of her relationship with her maternal grandmother balances potential negative reactions which she may have caused through her willing sexual encounters with Mr. Sands. Jacobs’ grandmother, Molly Horniblow, emphasized the need for virginity, and was so disappointed with Jacobs’ pregnancy that she refused to allow her into her home when Jacobs was seeking shelter from her master. However, it is here that the charity and love that Horniblow has is used to help the reader forgive Jacobs’ transgressions, as she does allow Jacobs to return and later shelters her.
However, anytime that Jacobs is with her grandmother, there is no mention of her grandfather, only her maternal grandmother and her children are mentioned. Jacobs, while being sheltered, was unable to find a safe way or time to escape and stayed in the attic for seven years, her children unaware she was there watching them grow up. Jacobs has mixed feelings about her children because she so dearly loves them but she doesn’t want them to have to suffer in slavery like she has so she wishes they would die, but loves them so much she doesn’t want to lose them like so many other slaves mothers have. Jacobs speaks of one such example: “I once saw a young slave girl dying soon after the birth of a child nearly white. In her agony she cried out, ‘O Lord, come and take me!’ Her mistress stood by, and mocked at her…. The girl’s mother said, ‘The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven too.’”
Another such example was of a mother who had all her children sold off: “I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, ‘Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?’” Jacobs had to compete with both racial and gender restrictions and stereotypes in her life in her publication of Incidents and, although written from a woman’s standpoint, it related heavily to all slaves in general both male and female. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one such example of the conditions that slaves were treated. “He took Tom’s trunk, which contained a very neat and abundant wardrobe, to the forecastle, where it was soon surrounded by various hands of the boat. With much laughing, at the expense of niggers who tried to be gentlemen, the articles very readily were sold to one and another, and the empty trunk finally put up at auction.”
Slaves of either gender were discriminated against just because of the color of their skin. But Jacobs’ throwing off the constraints of propriety in order to bring about change is one of the reasons why she has been studied so frequently by Feminist scholars, and women’s history scholars. An internet search for “Harriet Jacobs”, and “Feminism” returns over eight thousand results, most articles discussing Jacobs’ narrative as one of the first feminist narratives published. Jacobs was not only writing to change the lives of the enslaved women whose plight she understood so well. Jacobs also wrote about injustices to white women, despite being an African-American woman. Jacobs discusses the misfortune to be married, without a choice, to an older plantation owner and then being forced to witness his infidelity. Jacobs also hints at the desire to see legal protections for women against unwanted advances.
White women during the nineteenth century were not much more free than enslaved black women, being expected to obey their fathers and husbands in all things. Jacobs’ resistance to the advances of her master, and then her escape to freedom demonstrate how a woman could overcome such oppression, though not without the assistance of a community of sympathetic women. Jacobs wrote not only to tell her story, but to incite action on behalf of enslaved women. Incidents was one of the first accounts of the sexual violence which existed within slavery, as such it is a test which has helped further research into the experiences of enslaved women, inspired further feminist work, and still has much left to uncover. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is finally beginning to receive the recognition for the invaluable source which it is and should continue to be utilized as a primary source which exposes the reality of enslaved women. Bibliography Anderson, Jourdon. 1865. A Letter ‘To My Old Master’. Jacobs, Harriet. 1861. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by L. Maria Child. Boston, Massachusetts. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.