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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Excerpts from the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

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I. On sexual exploitation
When I was fifteen, Dr. Flint, who was fifty-five, began to whisper obscenities in my ear. No law protects a slave woman from insult, violence, or even death. An attractive white woman is admired, but an attractive Black woman is humiliated and brutalized.
Sometimes Flint cursed and threatened me; sometimes he tried to seduce me with gentleness. He told me I was his property and must surrender to his will. I tried to ignore him, but I was forced to live in his house. He met me at every turn. . . .
II. On the response to Nat Turner’s rebellion
Everyone in Edenton heard about a rebellion against slavery, led by Nat Turner. Several whites in Virginia had been killed. Most whites in Edenton were terrified that the slave rebellion might spread to North Carolina. Turner hadn’t been captured yet, so whites wanted to find out which Blacks supported him, and which had weapons. . . .
Suddenly orders were given and all the men rushed in every direction, wherever they could find a Black. It was a grand opportunity for poor whites, who had no slaves of their own to whip, to bully other people’s slaves. Poor whites regularly showed their loyalty to wealthy slave owners. They never stopped to think about what they had in common with slaves. The same power that slave owners used to trample Blacks kept these whites poor, ignorant, and immoral.
All day white men terrified and tormented Blacks. At night some of them raped Black women. If a Black husband or father reported the crime, he was tied to the public whipping post and whipped for “lying.” People with even the slightest brownness to their skin where afraid to be seen talking together.
III. On the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Soon after, the Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. This law made it a federal crime to help a runaway slave. Even people living in the Free States had to obey this law. No one who had escaped from slavery was safe.
Black families who had lived in New York City for twenty years now fled the city. Poor laundry women who had made a simple home for themselves through years of hard work had to give up all their furniture, quickly say goodbye to their friends, and start over in Canada. Many husbands and wives learned that their spouse was a runaway who must leave. Because the children of slave mothers are considered slaves, fathers suddenly discovered that their beloved children could be taken from them and carried into slavery.

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Boston: Published for the author, 1862).

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Background

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. When she was 22 years old, she ran away from her owners, leaving her young son and daughter in the care of her free maternal grandmother. Harriet hid in the attic of her grandmother’s shed for six years before finally getting the opportunity to take a ship to the North. She lived and worked for many years in New York City, Boston, and Rochester. Over time, she was able to reunite with her children and her younger brother. In 1852, a sympathetic employer helped her buy her freedom, so she no longer had to fear re-enslavement.

About the Document

Harriet Jacobs was friends with Frederick Douglass and Amy Post, who were both abolitionists. When Frederick Douglass published his autobiography, Amy encouraged Harriet to write one too. There were no slave narratives by women, and Amy believed Harriet’s story would shed new light on the cruelty of slavery.

Harriet struggled to write her autobiography. She was afraid readers would judge her for the difficult choices she made. She also had to keep her writing secret from her employer, who did not support the abolition of slavery. She finished writing the book in 1858, and asked Lydia Maria Child to help her edit it. But it took three more years for her to finally publish the book herself.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in January 1861. It was the first slave narrative written and published by a woman. It received a very positive response. But the outbreak of the Civil War only a few months later overshadowed the book. It has only recently been recognized as an important historical source on antebellum slavery.

Vocabulary

  • abolitionist: A person or group that wanted to end the practice of slavery.
  • autobiography: An account of a person’s life written by that person.
  • brutalized: Abused.
  • obscenities: Offensive words and phrases.
  • slave narratives: Autobiographies of enslaved people.
  • trample: Oppress.

Discussion Questions

  • What specific traumas did Harriet Jacobs experience as an enslaved woman?
  • How does Harriet Jacobs characterize poor Southern whites? Why is her characterization historically significant?
  • What does Harriet Jacobs reveal about the widespread effects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? What did this law do to Northern Black communities?
  • Why do you think Harriet Jacobs combined personal experiences and community history in her memoir?
  • What makes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl a valuable resource for historians?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

  • For more on the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, see New York Divided.
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