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A New Look at Life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs

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Harriet Jacobs 
[ Linda Brent]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a series in a newspaper before it was published as a book 1861. Harriet Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl tells the story in a unique way. It is part slave narrative and part novel. Harriet Jacobs focuses on the struggle that slaves endured to survive with dignity. The sexual abuse that was forced upon the female slave is also a focal point of the book.

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"Dr. Flint" and his house 

Harriet escaped her master and went into hiding, first at the homes of friends, and later in the home of her grandmother.  She hid in a small storeroom measuring about nine feet long and seven feet wide. The highest point was just three feet. She could not exercise.  Her children did not know she was in hiding, but she could watch them grow.

 

One quote from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that really touched my heart was when Harriet confided, “I must fight my battle alone. I had a woman's pride, and a mother's love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will."  

 

I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl many years ago, but just recently I started re-reading the book. Memories of why I found it so hard to read came rushing back to me.  Slavery's dark history is revealed by Harriet Jacobs.  She brings into the light the horror of slavery.  How one human being, could threat another human being as less than an animal.  As many excerpts from this book shows, this horror was especially intense for woman and her children. "I knew the doom that awaited my fair baby in slavery, and I determined to save her from it, or perish in the attempt." (Harriet Jacobs)

 

A slave women's body did not belong to her.  Her children did not belong to her. It was the law that a child followed the status of the mother. When I think that my ancestors lived in fear that their child could be taken and sold, I can't begin to understand. A mother could not even nurse her own child because her milk was needed to nourish the child of her master’s wife.  A wrong look, a whispered word, any small offense could cause a mother to lose the child she carried, the child she loved.  The child could be sold on the auction block.

 

“The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children.” (Harriet Jacobs)

 

I often ask myself, how did we survived as a people against the cruelty inflected on our bodies and souls.  The Middle Passage was stage of the triangle trade in which millions of Africans were shipped to the new world as part of the Atlantic slave trade.  This horrific journey ripped the flesh and drove some to jump into the ocean rather than go into the great unknown.   African women were looked upon as less than humans and their bodies belonged to whoever became their owner.  

 

“How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink.” (Harriet Jacobs)  The slave sister was the little playmate of white child. Two human beings each with different paths in life.  The white child may find happiness, whereas the slave sister would be persecuted because of the color of her skin.  

 

“And now came the trying hour for that drove of human beings, driven away like cattle, to be sold they knew not where. Husbands were torn from wives, parents from children, never to look upon each other again this side the grave. There was wringing of hands and cries of despair.” (Harriet Jacobs) In the class I teach on the “History of Racism” at California State Fullerton, I ask my students to not just discuss, but to try to internalize…to feel.  Husbands torn from wives, parents from children, how would you feel? This question can be answered only by researching the lives of the people who have came before us. 

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Sale Bill for a Slave Auction

Harriet’s children were eventually sold to their father, a free white man.  Once this great burden was off her heart, she felt she could face anything.  “The darkest cloud that hung over my life had rolled away. Whatever slavery might do to me, it could not shackle my children.” (Harriet Jacobs)

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Grand Mother's House 

Seven years she hid in the storeroom in her grandmother's house.  I ask myself, “How could she survive?”  Her strength, the strength that comes from being a woman fighting for her children, gave her the will to survive. “For the last time I went up to my nook. Its desolate appearance no longer chilled me, for the light of hope had risen in my soul.” (Harriet Jacobs)

 

In researching what became of Harriet Jacobs after reading her book, I found through Harrietjacobs.org that in 1842, with the help of a trusted friend, Harriet secretly boarded a boat in Edenton Harbor bound for Philadelphia. After disembarking, she traveled by railway to New York where she was soon reunited with her daughter and her brother John, who had previously moved north. A year later, her son, Joseph, joined the family in Boston. Harriet traveled between New York and Boston, working as a nursemaid for the family of Nathanial Parker Willis. Even though Harriet was miles away from Edenton, the Norcom family continued to seek her out in an effort to re-enslave her.

 

The website also stated that in 1852, Harriet’s employer Mrs. Cornelia Willis, an anti-slavery sympathizer, arranged for Harriet’s purchase and freed her. Harriet was eventually reunited with her children.  You can read more of her story at harrietjacobs.org.

 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a book that should be read by all.  As George Santayana has said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

by Alexis Gwen, MS

CSUF, African American Studies Department

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Photo credit to LOC and Original Authors 

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