Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Ann Jacobs

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is a perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”

Being Canadian, and unlike my U.S. counterparts, I have little knowledge of the details and intricacies of the history of slavery in the United States, so I was pleased to note that my The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project has a few books that cover this important, yet disturbing, period.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first book of this ilk on the list.  A book written in the tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, Jacobs strives to give a voice to the thousands of black men and women, who suffered abuse, injustice and the theft of their true identities under the yoke of slavery.

Jacobs (in the book calling herself Linda Brent), chronicles her story, beginning with her idyllic life within her family who are well-off slaves of a kind owner.  At her mother’s death when Linda is six, she is sent to reside with her mistress who teaches her to read and write, but at the death of her owner, she is sold to the Flint family and her suffering begins.  Dr. Flint is harsh and cruel, developing a desire for Linda, and she is continually tormented by his sexual advances.  Thinking to save herself and her virtue, she begins a relationship with another white man and has two children with him in hopes Dr. Flint will cease his attentions.  Instead he is enraged and sends her and her children to do hard labour on one of his plantations.  The book further relates of her escape, her continuous concern about the fate of her children, seven years of her life in an attic so she is not discovered, and her final journey to the north and a relative freedom, although her expectations of her life there are perhaps somewhat disappointed.

Reward for notice for the return of
Harriet Jacobs by James Norcome (Dr. Flint)
source Wikipedia

Jacobs tells a touching and unique story from a woman’s point-of-view, highlighting not only all the brutality and abuse the negro people suffered at the hands of some of their masters, but also the degradation to their spirits. Yet although Jacobs shows her people in their suffering, she also is able to emphasis their greatness of spirit:

“Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving peole on the face of the earth.  That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or dog.”

While the book is full of horrid examples, Jacobs also strives to mention the white men and woman she met or observed in her life that showed kindness or compassion, and says of her benefactress, Mrs. Bruce:

“The noble heart!  The brave heart!  The tears are in my eyes while I write of her.  May the God of the helpless reward her for her sympathy with my persecuted people!”

Harriet Ann Jacobs
source Wikipedia

While most of this book is at once both heartbreaking and wonderfully illuminating, there was an aspect of it that bothered me.  Jacobs was very clear and concise, and rightly so, with her denunciation of slavery and its assault on human dignity and the human spirit, but whenever a slave committed something from as small as a lack of good judgement to something as large as a crime, Jacobs excused their actions based on the treatment they had suffered under their masters.  For example, with regard to her decision to enter into a relationship and have children with Mr. Sands, she says:

“I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others.”

Later she states:

“I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges.  So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery.”

When she encounters a slave who has stolen money from his dead master, she declares:

“This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?  I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages.”

I don’t disagree with Jacobs’ premise that slavery can drive people to excesses, but I do disagree about excusing wrong behaviour with it.  Because someone has committed a wrong against you, does that give one the right to return the same in kind?  Couldn’t this startling reasoning be as dangerous as the reasoning employed to bring the black people into slavery?  It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, words from a man who had been both a commander and a persecuted soul, effectively both a master and a slave, and who finally learned that: “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evils cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  The seeds that began slavery and other atrocities are within us all, it’s important that man or woman, slave or free, persecuted or persecutor, that we are all aware of that piece and the danger it can do to ourselves and others.

In any case, it was a blemish on an otherwise excellent narrative.  Jacobs hatred of slavery in all its forms shows through as well as her overwhelming love and understanding for her fellow man.

17 thoughts on “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Ann Jacobs

  1. I have read many of these books as well, the most recent, 12 Years a Slave. I've also read Up From Slavery by Booker T Washington. This author doesn't reveal anything new but what I find relevant is to look at my own society and where we have allowed ourselves to accept heinous practices as normal.

    It's easy for us to deplore the abominable practices of a bygone time but what is happening now that according to the Bible is wrong but is acceptable even by people inside of the church.

    Because, really, the only thing that makes slavery wrong is because it violates the law of God. I know people can point to slavery existing in the Bible but God never condoned it, but he did make strict rules concerning it (such as freeing all slaves and debtors every seven years).

    Very nice review!

  2. You bring an eloquent analysis and unique perspective to the book and the issues. Now — being politically incorrect as is my weakness — I want to build on one of the quotations you cited: "I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others." In the United States in the last several years, a variation on that theme has taken hold of culture in that some so-called descendants of slaves (African-Americans) have argued similarly (i.e., different standards for behavior are appropriate for different elements of the population). Here is an example: teachers in schools have been put on notice that (mis)behaviors of African-American children must be perceived and handled differently (more forgivingly) than behaviors of other populations in the classroom. Now, with the cat loose among the pigeons, I await the reactions.

  3. Cleo – I wrote a long comment – and then I lost it. I'll have to rewrite it when I return tonight. But then I'll have more time to think about it. and I'll have time to reply to your comment on my post.

  4. No, RT. You're right. I was never told to be softer on black students when I taught, but I was brought in to the principal's office on more than one occasion and accused of racism for disciplining certain kids who happened to be black. The fact that the majority of the kids at my school were black and were not discipline problems in my class didn't seem to sink in to the principal.

  5. I used Harriet Beecher Stowe's slavery arguments for the abortion argument. I couldn't help seeing it right in my face. Unborn babies are PROPERTY, and the OWNER can do what she likes. And then, yes, it's not a baby either, just like slaves were less than human.

    Here's my link if you are interested:

    The more I read about slavery, the more I see that thinking today for abortion. We haven't changed at all. And like Stowe argues and Jacobs argues, the church today is really quiet, and Christians also are really quiet. And if women are the ones who get anything accomplished, they have made abortion their cause. So really who is there left to fight for unborn babies?

  6. OK, so the story about the slave who stole from his dead master pricked my conscience, and I was uncomfortable about Jacobs intentionally lying on several occasions. Much of her existence was lived in deception and lies. But, yes, slavery provoked those sins, including her decision to have an improper relationship with Sawyer.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe argues in UTC that slavery causes people to commit immoral injustice, both slaves and masters. Some do it unknowingly, but others are aware of their sins, like Jacobs was. Obviously, she was shown the law (on her heart), and she was convicted. I imagine she still carried that guilt and pain when she wrote those words.

    I don't know what I would have done had I been her. But here is another situation from a different story: I believe it is in The Hiding Place. Corrie Ten Boom could not lie when she was asked where the Jews were hiding. She pointed to the dining room table with a table cloth draped over to the floor. When the soldiers looked, there was no one. But she told the truth b/c the Jews were hiding under the floor boards, under the rug, under the table. She just couldn't lie b/c she knew that God hates lying. And yet, man could easily justify a lie in that case. I would.

    Anyway, I don't think it is right to excuse sin; but I think she carried bitterness from her circumstances, and that is how she wrote it. I guess I don't blame her a bit, but I hope that she was able to forgive those hurt her, and lived truly free from those burdens.

  7. Ruth, do you know as I was reading your response I immediately thought of Corrie Ten Boom right before I came to your paragraph on her. We have to trust God. We can't lean on our own understanding in any situation.
    There is another situation with Corrie Ten Boom and I would have to look through my book of The Hiding Place to find it but it was another instant of them not lying about a woman being Jewish and she got sent away but because of getting sent away she was freed. I can't remember the particulars.
    But again there was her father who could have lied and said he would not hide any more Jews and they would have let him go but he insisted that he would hide Jews the second they let him go. He died for his honesty. But we know ultimately he was rewarded.
    Having said all that, the question, is would I be so brave?

  8. I like your political incorrectness, R.T.; just like Socrates, so you're in good company. 🙂

    While your specific example relates to the U.S., Canadians don't discriminate ….. we just pussyfoot around and go easy on everyone. Everyone is allowed to have an excuse for anything, and our criminal justice system is one of the laxest on criminals in the world. So while on one hand there isn't a comparison, on the other hand there is.

    Sharon's example and yours sort of highlight what bothered me about Jacobs book; by excusing the behaviour of her people because of their treatment, she is in effect drawing another line between blacks and whites. Somehow we need to start seeing people as people and not different races or different colours.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to rewrite your comment, Ruth. I always appreciate your thoughts.

    While I understand that their treatment could make them more prone to wrong behaviour, it bothered me that she, as their spokesperson could advocate it, especially in the case that you can tell she knows that its wrong. I was disappointed. I thought confessing these weaknesses and flaws in character, would have made her argument stronger, not weaker. But instead I felt it put another division between whites and blacks, which is hopefully not what she was aiming for. It's very easy in a situation of persecution to have the persecuted party seeing in their situation that something is owed to them to rectify past injustices. I find when this atonement is demanded, it rarely brings peace or equality (I feel Jacobs excuses are like demands, ie. because you did this and this to us, therefore we should be allowed to act wrongly as well) but when it is freely given, it can bring about healing and reconciliation.

    I noticed also, when she mentioned the Fugitive Slave Law, she only mentioned how terrible it was because it tore families apart, but glossed over the fact that fugitive slaves often lied to their spouse or families who never knew they were on the run and this dishonesty caused this law to be even more tragic. Again, if she had addressed this fact, it would have given her more credibility. She complains that their situation strips them off their morality, but then she missed rather crucial opportunities to help them gain it back.

    In any case, while I don't blame her, I think by taking on writing a narrative, she then takes on extra responsibility for her reports and also for not making the situation worse. So again I was disappointed. Do I wish that she never wrote her narrative? Not at all! As I said, it gave such a unique POV and is an important chronicle of this era. I do wish we could have had her grandmother's response to it. Now THAT would have been interesting!

    To compare the Corrie Ten Boon examples to Jacobs, since death wasn't the outcome if she didn't tell the truth, I'm not sure if they're completely relevant but it is interesting to think of such a situation, and Sharon's last question is an excellent one. I think few people could answer unless they were in such a situation.

    Thanks so much, you two (and R.T.), for getting such good conversations going. I love these sort of discussions! It makes me appreciate the book so much more! 🙂

  10. "Unborn babies are PROPERTY, and the OWNER can do what she likes"

    Wow, I hadn't thought of it this way before —- I blame my lack of knowledge of slavery. I'm going to go to Ruth's review and then think about it some more …..

  11. In regards to your last comment, is it a blemish though? Shouldn't literature bring us into contact with what people actually think or at least how the characters (in a fictional narrative) view the world rather than what we personally would like them to think and believe about it?

  12. I'm smiling now. You always ask the most challenging questions. 🙂

    You know, I agree with you and disagree with you. Huh? Please let me explain ….. 🙂 I agree with what you said; yes we should want to know what other people think and how they've acted and certainly not expect them to act like us. However, you would hope that the person would have taken their thoughts and actions past the point of reaction, examined them and learned something from them, and then share that as well. And their conclusions don't have to necessarily agree with what you would have done yourself, they just have to show some deeper self-knowledge which I think Jacobs is lacking. How a character has acted (or thought) initially can be interesting, but you want to see how they've developed as a person. Is this an idealistic expectation? Perhaps, but hopefully if one was writing a book to the best of one's ability, that's what would be attempted.

    Now because I felt this didn't happen, does that mean I can't enjoy the book or get something out of it? Not at all! This very flaw has brought thought and discussion and that's valuable in itself.

  13. Well said! That would give greater credibility to her actions. That's true on many levels. Don't simply assert your beliefs or actions to me. Support why you think that way.

  14. I agree with you that we are all capable of such extreme atrocities. Maybe that is a bleak way of looking at the world but I think there is a balance of good and bad in us all and for some it tips more one way or the other.

    When I read this book, I didn't see it as Jacobs simply using slavery to excuse wrong behavior but showing how slavery pushes a person to the ends of their selves and twists their sense of morality. Considering when and who she were her audience, I think she was trying to show that even people with good intentions are susceptible to the evils of slavery, you have to do what you can to survive it.

  15. Really good points, Zezee. I think you're absolutely right but I also think that some of her comments corrupted her intentions. As in my case, I was left with the excuses, which I think are quite shocking, instead of with what is a really insightful commentary on some of the evils of slavery.

    I went on your blog, BTW. Very fun! I love how eclectic your choice of books are ….. from Taran the Wanderer to Jason and Medea! I'll be following you on Bloglovin'!

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!