Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girlby Harriet Jacobs, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Dawn Lundy Martin
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs Writing as Linda Brent
“It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with these gloomy
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200th Anniversary Edition
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs Writing as Linda Brent
“It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with these gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.”
One of the most memorable slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrates the overarching evil and pervasive depravity of the institution of slavery. In great and painful detail, Jacobs describes her life as a Southern slave, the exploitation that haunted her daily life, her abuse by her master, the involvement she sought with another white man in order to escape her master, and her determination to win freedom for herself and her children. From her seven years of hiding in a garret that was three feet high, to her harrowing escape north to a reunion with her children and freedom, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains an outstanding example of one woman’s extraordinary courage in the face of almost unbeatable odds, as well as one of the most significant testimonials in American history.
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Harriet Jacobs (1813–97) was a reformer, Civil War and Reconstruction relief worker, and antislavery activist. Born a slave to mulatto parents in North Carolina, she was only fifteen when her master, Dr. Flint, began his pursuit of her. This abuse and the resulting oppression from Flint’s wife forced Jacobs to take drastic measures to protect herself, so she encouraged a relationship with Mr. Sands, an unmarried white lawyer for whom she bore two children. When the situation with Flint became intolerable, she left her children and took refuge in a small garret of her grandmother’s house, where she lived for seven years. She finally escaped to the North, and her children eventually followed. She managed to support herself while evading numerous attempts by Flint to return her to slavery. At age forty, Jacobs was purchased and then emancipated by an abolitionist who was Jacobs’s employer and friend. During the Civil War, Jacobs began a career working among black refugees. In 1863, she and her daughter moved to Alexandria, where they supplied emergency relief, organized primary medical care, and established the Jacobs Free School—black led and black taught—for the refugees. After the war, they sailed to England and successfully raised money for a home for Savannah’s black orphans and aged. They then moved to Washington, D.C., where they continued to work among the destitute freed people, and her daughter worked in the newly established “colored schools” and, later, at Howard University. In 1896, Harriet Jacobs was present at the organizing meetings of the National Association of Colored Women.
Myrlie Evers-Williams is the author of For Us, the Living, depicting the life of Medgar Evers and the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, and Watch Me Fly, her autobiography. Chairman emeritus of the NAACP, she is president and founder of the Medgar Evers Institute as well as CEO and president of MEW Associates, Inc.
Dawn Lundy Martin, PhD, is a poet, scholar, and assistant professor in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the collection of poems, A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007), coeditor of The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (Anchor Books, 2004), and a member of the avant-garde African-American poetics group the Black Took Collective.
LIFE OF A
Writing as Linda Brent
With an Introduction by
and a New Afterword by
Dawn Lundy Martin, PhD
IN ANY STUDY of the history of America, one is certain to be introduced to the subject of slavery—and varying accounts of the horrifying tales associated with it. The reader of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is taken on a personal odyssey through this most horrific and uncivilized period of American history from the viewpoint of a female slave. What makes Incidents exceptional to any other slave narrative is that, with the hesitant and apologetic voice of an enslaved black American woman, the story expressly deals with racism, as well as sexism. Both acts are manipulated through the mechanics of “legal slavery.” The resulting consequences from this demoralized institution have continued to divide the black and white races in America, even to this day.
All “incidents” related in the story of Harriet Jacobs’s life seem to touch on three recurring themes: the struggle for freedom, the preservation of family, and the plight of black American women. It is interesting to note that the author refers to herself as a “slave girl,” although the book was written when she was a forty-year-old woman. And, as if to distance herself from the emotional ties to the story she is about to tell, Harriet chooses to become a spectator in her own life, casting the persona “Linda Brent” in the starring role.
The issues of freedom versus slavery, white versus black, and men versus women are interwoven within the fabric of American society during the 1800s—the period in which Harriet lived. These issues become the target of her struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom. She sought release from a cruel, sadistic white plantation owner; she longed for the same dignities afforded other American citizens; and she dreamed of life as a woman who could love and be loved by the man of her choice, as well as being a mother who could raise her children in a secure and caring environment.
The uniqueness of this narrative is that Harriet Jacobs, by her own account, was never brutalized physically in the manner that is commonly portrayed in stories about life as a slave. This in itself could have hindered her from seeking freedom at such a high cost—loss of her life, or loss of her children’s lives. She did experience some “blows,” which were mild when considering the standards of the life-threatening beatings received by slaves under similar circumstances. However, the mental abuse and the hypocrisy of the slave-master relationship ultimately became the driving force behind Harriet’s desire to escape. (Before the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, there was the mistaken image that slaves were a happy lot, and had no desire to leave their masters.)
The statement that introduces Chapter One of the book sets the tone for the remaining sections and is indicative of the naïveté of young Harriet Jacobs as regards to her station in life. She muses that she did not know she “was a slave until I was six years old.” The life of Harriet Jacobs as narrated in the person of “Linda Brent” at that point had been as idyllic as any other child’s, regardless of race or social standing.
It is vitally important for the reader to understand the bond between Harriet and her relatives, and to recognize that her family unit was intact up until the time of her mother’s death. Hers was no life burdened by the division of the father from mother, mother from child, as was so commonly practiced during that time. In addition to her mother, her father lived with his wife and children, and the grandmother resided nearby.
Harriet’s grandmother, who was a respected woman in the black and white communities, made a modest living by baking goods for the townspeople. Although she was eventually successful in using her income to secure the freedom of her son, Philip, she was unable to purchase her own freedom. Instead, at the age of fifty, she became a free woman due to the kindness of an elderly white woman, who could neither read nor write her own name to the bill of sale—the official mark of a “cross” freed Harriet’s grandmother.
Harriet’s father was a skilled carpenter who was treated as a free man and was given the “privilege” of paying his master for the “right” to earn his own income. This payment totaled approximately half of his yearly earnings. Her father made many attempts to pay for his family’s freedom, but as a slave, he was limited in his purchasing power. While her mother was alive, Harriet’s family maintained the appearance of a traditional patriarchal household, but after her death, the father virtually disappeared from his children’s lives as they were entrusted to the white mistress of the house.
Harriet’s father was actually more than capable of caring for his own children after the mother died; however, as a slave, he was rendered powerless in their upbringing. It was almost as if his children became “wards of the state.” Harriet and her brother were moved into the household of the master and mistress after the mother’s death, thus making it virtually impossible for the father to participate in the rearing of his own children.
He did attempt to exercise parental guardianship on whatever occasion and to the best extent possible. An incident arose that involved the matter of his son, William, and William’s attitude toward slavery. This was when William was called simultaneously by his father and his mistress to perform some task. He weighed the perplexing challenge “of who had the strongest claim on his obedience”—should he obey his black father, who caused his birth, or the white mistress of the plantation? He chose the mistress. The father, upon learning that William had responded to the mistress first, added further to this confusing state of affairs by reprimanding his son, “You are my child, and when I call you, you should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water.” This admonishment came from a man who was a slave—who could neither free himself, his son, nor protect his daughter from another man’s viciousness.
Although the death of Harriet’s mother brought about a change in the family’s living arrangements, Harriet lived a fairly decent life for the next few years, as her mistress treated her as her own, teaching her to read, spell, and sew. However, when she reached her twelfth birthday, the bondage of slavery became a reality, as her kindhearted benefactor succumbed to death.
Ironically, the blessing of being owned by a “kind” mistress or master became an unrelenting curse that formed Harriet’s view of herself and all human beings in the eyes of God. For, by having the knowledge of the letters, she was able to read the disciplines set out in the Bible, the same book that shaped the moral fiber of the Christian slave owners. How could slavery be justified, when God’s Word admonished, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Of course, slaves were not viewed as human beings; therefore the observance of Christian principles was not binding upon the “kind” white slave owners. This agonizing paradox wreaked havoc with Harriet’s soul as she tried unrelentingly to cling to the high moral standards of purity and chastity. This struggle imminently manifested itself under the brutal harassment received from her new master—Dr. Flint.
Promises had been made earlier to Harriet’s mother that the children would be taken care of—ultimately freed. However, it was not to be, as the “kind” slave owner viewed the children as no more than merchandise, which upon her death was to be divided as property amongst the heirs of her estate. Harriet was “willed” to her mistress’s five-year-old niece, the daughter of Dr. Flint. The Flints lived within the confines of the town of Edenton, close to Harriet’s grandmother. Since the five-year-old was not of legal age to manage this “gift” of property, Harriet was now destined to render service to the new master and mistress of the household, who had absolute authority over her fate.
It was when she was an adolescent at the age of fifteen that Dr. Flint began his obsessive pursuit of Harriet as his concubine, making certain to instill in her that she was “made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing.” To passively submit to the advances of the master would certainly be excused and understood under the circumstances—many female slaves chose that course in hopes of improving an otherwise dismal existence. To aggressively fight against the master could mean physical punishment and persecution to the slave and/or her family members. It becomes a matter of choice, as if slaves had any choice.
The truly spiritual nature and moral character of Harriet Jacobs constantly reveals itself throughout the pages of the book. The quest for freedom becomes her relentless passion as she devises creative measures to preserve her righteous principles and to prevent her master from raping her. It was these moral convictions that placed her on par with any white “Christian” woman.
Of course, the wife of the master was unable to restrain her husband’s licentious appetite and his obsessive desire to possess another woman—albeit a slave woman, but still a woman. Subsequently, this often resulted in additional abuse from the mistress of the household, who would now find herself humiliated in the eyes of those who were her peers and those to whom she felt superior. Whether mistress or slave, both women were wretchedly branded as inferior to the man.
Harriet knew, that no matter how virtuous the appearance Dr. Flint and his wife presented to the world outside the confines of his home, she would never be allowed to go free. Thus, she chose to take matters in her own hands, opting to become sexually involved with a nearby young, white, unmarried lawyer who had treated her kindly and who had become her friend.
In making the choice of whom she would give herself to, Harriet also became an outcast from her grandmother’s goodwill—the one woman who should have been able to sympathize with Harriet’s state of affairs. Once again, the matter of who had the strongest claim on one’s obedience became an issue—obedience to the master, thereby relinquishing all control of herself to him; obedience to the grandmother, who had no control of her own “self”; or obedience to her moral conscience, which she alone could influence.
The secretive trysts with the young lawyer resulted in Harriet’s bearing him first a son and then a daughter. Although Harriet’s children were fathered by a white man, the children of slaves inherited the fate of the mother. Therefore, this man—an equal to Dr. Flint—could not restore honor to his progeny; neither could he purchase another man’s “property” if it were not for sale. If the lot of a male slave was filled with physical hardships and mental anguish, that of a female’s condition was humanly deplorable and unbearable. A healthy male slave could possibly add income to the master’s purse. The lot of a female child born a slave—healthy or not—was valued no more than a breeder—if she were lucky.
Harriet was eventually transferred a few miles outside of town to the plantation household of Dr. Flint’s son. Shortly thereafter, it became increasingly evident that the only chance she would have for freedom would be to escape during this time, while her children were living in town, under the care of their great-grandmother—her grandmother.
It is at this point in the story where the reader will want to embrace Harriet’s determined spirit and rally her on to salvation. For what follows is the account of her life in “self-imposed” exile.
After several unsuccessful attempts to flee to the North, Harriet finds safe harbor by hiding in a homemade boxlike “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch. This “box”—measuring nine feet long by seven feet wide and, at its highest point, just three feet high—somewhat resembled a large “coffin.” Food was passed to her through a small trapdoor. The only light was from a serrated hole drilled by Harriet in her desperate attempt to maintain some measure of sanity in her new dwelling.
How long can someone wait for the freedom train? In the year that Harriet Jacobs moved into this box, the Liberty Bell cracked while tolling the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. One day became 2,520 days; 2,520 days became 83 months. Nineteenth-century historical records show that Betsy Ross died in Harriet’s second year of self-imposed exile; Victoria became Queen of Great Britain in her third year; the Underground Railroad was organized while Harriet lived in her box for the fourth year; in her fifth year, the mutiny of slaves on board the Amistad ship occurred; and as American women gathered at the Worldwide Anti-Slavery Convention in London to stage a protest because they were not allowed to be seated as delegates, Harriet was in her sixth year of hiding. Nearly seven years later, during the time that the first university degrees were granted to women in America, Harriet Jacobs successfully escaped to the North.
During her self-imposed exile, Harriet had little opportunity to observe her children, and spoke to them only once at the end of her period of exile as she prepared her escape to the North. The obsessive and harsh Dr. Flint was persistent in his attempts to find Harriet while she remained hidden, often using her children as bait. But Harriet’s obsession for freedom carried her through even this trial. It was obvious that both children had inherited her strong will and her spirit of determination, as was manifested on at least two occasions: young Benny was observed remarking to Dr. Flint that he could not put him in jail again, as “I don’t belong to you now.” The occasion of jail was a reference to the time Dr. Flint literally threw the youngsters in jail with their uncle, hoping that this action would draw Harriet from hiding. Her daughter, Ellen, was only two years old at the time. Ellen had contracted measles while confined in prison, and was returned to Dr. Flint’s for treatment; however, Ellen hated the Flints so much that she cried to be taken back—the child actually preferred jail!
During the period of Harriet’s hiding, Dr. Flint pursued numerous false leads to the North, resulting in an enormous monetary expense. It seemed a favorable time for the children’s father to approach Dr. Flint about purchasing their freedom. Eight hundred dollars was offered for the two children when, under any circumstances, four hundred would do. But the desire for revenge was so immense that the doctor refused, forfeiting any profit to be gained from this venture in order to spite Harriet. It was the only hold he had on her. He had witnessed her physical endurance and unwavering stance for her rights, but he was never able to appreciate the mental strength and spiritual power that moved her through these tribulations.
Imagine, if you will, the indefatigable spirit of a woman who would choose life in a “coffin,” dead to the institution of slavery but alive in her pursuit offreedom, rather than a “good” life in the hands of her owner.
Harriet finally became free when her kind employer and friend bought her freedom for three hundred dollars. However, by the time this occurs, the reader knows that Harriet became free years earlier when she chose to take control of her own life, plot her own destiny. The three hundred dollars paid for the paperwork to make it legal.
This is a story of the struggles endured by one woman as a slave, but it also reveals the mysteries of the human spirit and inspirationally redefines faith. It is a story of a woman whose life can be paralleled to that of so many in this twentieth century: women who were too afraid to leave an abusive mate now finding the courage to say “no more”; women whose financial limitations were traditionally bound by the husbands’ incomes, now becoming entrepreneurs and decision makers in the economic arena; grandmothers raising the children of their children for the sake of future generations.
The name of Harriet Jacobs is not one that comes readily to mind when exploring heroism of the nineteenth century—or any century, for that matter. But her actions speak encouragingly to any who have been faced with insurmountable problems, with seemingly no way out. There is always a way out. It is up to us to choose the best method of escape.
History teaches us lessons to shape our perception of the past, and to aid in charting our course for the future. If this is true, then the study of American his-tory must include an honest examination of the uncivilized institution of slavery and its comprehensive context. We must continue to analyze the social and economic impact of slavery with a view toward burying the sordidness of racism and sexism in the “coffin” that gave Harriet Jacobs her life.
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was reprinted from the 1861 edition, published for the author in Boston.
LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL.
WRITTEN BY HERSELF.
“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is 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.”
A WOMAN OF NORTH CAROLINA.
“Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech.”
ISAIAH xxxii. 9.
EDITED BY L. MARIA CHILD.
PUBLISHED FOR THE AUTHOR.
PREFACE BY THE AUTHOR
READER BE ASSURED this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course.
I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. I was born and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years. Since I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a sketch of my life, but I told him I was altogether incompetent to such an undertaking. Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I still remain of the same opinion; but I trust my motives will excuse what might otherwise seem presumptuous. I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. 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. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations. May the blessing of God rest on this imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted people!
INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITOR
THE AUTHOR OF the following autobiography is personally known to me, and her conversation and man-ners inspire me with confidence. During the last seventeen years, she has lived the greater part of the time with a distinguished family in New York, and has so deported herself as to be highly esteemed by them. This fact is sufficient, without further credentials of her character. I believe those who know her will not be disposed to doubt her veracity, though some incidents in her story are more romantic than fiction.
At her request, I have revised her manuscript; but such changes as I have made have been mainly for purposes of condensation and orderly arrangement. I have not added any thing to the incidents, or changed the import of her very pertinent remarks. With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the language are her own. I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had no reason for changing her lively and dramatic way of telling her own story. The names of both persons and places are known to me; but for good reasons I suppress them.
It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in Slavery should be able to write so well. But circumstances will explain this. In the first place, nature endowed her with quick perceptions. Secondly, the mistress, with whom she lived till she was twelve years old, was a kind, considerate friend who taught her to read and spell. Thirdly, she was placed in favorable circumstances after she came to the North; having frequent intercourse with intelligent persons, who felt a friendly interest in her welfare, and were disposed to give her opportunities for self-improvement.
I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others indelicate. This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them. I do it with the hope of arousing conscientious and reflecting women at the North to a sense of their duty in the exertion of moral influence on the question of Slavery, on all possible occasions. I do it with the hope that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God that, so far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from Slavery shall ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty.
—L. Maria Child
LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL,
SEVEN YEARS CONCEALED.
I WAS BORN a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. In complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes. They lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment. I had one brother, William, who was two years younger than myself—a bright, affectionate child. I had also a great treasure in my maternal grandmother, who was a remarkable woman in many respects. She was the daughter of a planter in South Carolina, who, at his death, left her mother and his three children free, with money to go to St. Augustine, where they had relatives. It was during the Revolutionary War; and they were captured on their passage, carried back, and sold to different purchasers. Such was the story my grandmother used to tell me; but I do not remember all the particulars. She was a little girl when she was captured and sold to the keeper of a large hotel. I have often heard her tell how hard she fared during childhood. But as she grew older she evinced so much intelligence, and was so faithful, that her master and mistress could not help seeing it was for their interest to take care of such a valuable piece of property. She became an indispensable personage in the household, officiating in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress. She was much praised for her cooking; and her nice crackers became so famous in the neighborhood that many people were desirous of obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests of this kind, she asked permission of her mistress to bake crackers at night, after all the household work was done; and she obtained leave to do it, provided she would clothe herself and her children from the profits. Upon these terms, after working hard all day for her mistress, she began her midnight bakings, assisted by her two oldest children. The business proved profitable; and each year she laid by a little, which was saved for a fund to purchase her children. Her master died, and the property was divided among his heirs. The widow had her dower in the hotel which she continued to keep open. My grandmother remained in her service as a slave; but her children were divided among her master’s children. As she had five, Benjamin, the youngest one, was sold, in order that each heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents. There was so little difference in our ages that he seemed more like my brother than my uncle. He was a bright, handsome lad, nearly white; for he inherited the complexion my grandmother had derived from Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Though only ten years old, seven hundred and twenty dollars were paid for him. His sale was a terrible blow to my grandmother, but she was naturally hopeful, and she went to work with renewed energy, trusting in time to be able to purchase some of her children. She had laid up three hundred dollars, which her mistress one day begged as a loan, promising to pay her soon. The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a slave is legally binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can hold no property. When my grandmother lent her hard earnings to her mistress, she trusted solely to her honor. The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!
To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts. My brother Willie and I often received portions of the crackers, cakes, and preserves, she made to sell; and after we ceased to be children we were indebted to her for many more important services.
Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early childhood. When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food. They played together as children; and, when they became women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister. On her death-bed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her lifetime she kept her word. They all spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a slave merely in name, but in nature was noble and womanly. I grieved for her, and my young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and my little brother. I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress; and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free from care as that of any free-born white child. When she thought I was tired, she would send me out to run and jump; and away I bounded, to gather berries or flowers to decorate her room. Those were happy days—too happy to last. The slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel.
When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed in my heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me. My prayers were not answered. She died, and they buried her in the little churchyard, where, day after day, my tears fell upon her grave.
I was sent to spend a week with my grandmother. I was now old enough to begin to think of the future; and again and again I asked myself what they would do with me. I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind as the one who was gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would be so. They thought she would be sure to do it, on account of my mother’s love and faithful service. But, alas! we all know that the memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her children from the auction block.
After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory.
She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed among her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother’s children, and had shared the same milk that nourished her mother’s children. Notwithstanding my grandmother’s long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.
II. THE NEW MASTER AND MISTRESS.
DR. FLINT, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my mistress, and I was now the property of their little daughter. It was not without murmuring that I prepared for my new home; and what added to my unhappiness, was the fact that my brother William was purchased by the same family. My father, by his nature, as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skillful mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common among slaves. My brother was a spirited boy; and being brought up under such influences, he daily detested the name of master and mistress. One day, when his father and his mistress both happened to call him at the same time, he hesitated between the two; being perplexed to know which had the strongest claim upon his obedience. He finally concluded to go to his mistress. When my father reproved him for it, he said, “You both called me, and I didn’t know which I ought to go to first.”
“You are my child,” replied our father, “and when I call you, you should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water.”
Poor Willie! He was now to learn his first lesson of obedience to a master. Grandmother tried to cheer us with hopeful words, and they found an echo in the credulous hearts of youth.
When we entered our new home we encountered cold looks, cold words, and cold treatment. We were glad when the night came. On my narrow bed I moaned and wept, I felt so desolate and alone.
I had been there nearly a year, when a dear little friend of mine was buried. I heard her mother sob, as the clods fell on the coffin of her only child, and I turned away from the grave, feeling thankful that I still had something left to love. I met my grandmother, who said, “Come with me, Linda;” and from her tone I knew that something sad had happened. She led me apart from the people, and then said, “My child, your father is dead.” Dead! How could I believe it? He had died so suddenly I had not even heard that he was sick. I went home with my grandmother. My heart rebelled against God, who had taken from me mother, father, mistress, and friend. The good grandmother tried to comfort me. “Who knows the ways of God?” said she. “Perhaps they have been kindly taken from the evil days to come.” Years afterwards I often thought of this. She promised to be a mother to her grandchildren, so far as she might be permitted to do so; and strengthened by her love, I returned to my master’s. I thought I should be allowed to go to my father’s house the next morning; but I was ordered to go for flowers, that my mistress’s house might be decorated for an evening party. I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? he was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach; presumptuous in him, and dangerous to the masters.
The next day I followed his remains to a humble grave beside that of my dear mother. There were those who knew my father’s worth, and respected his memory.
My home now seemed more dreary than ever. The laugh of the little slave-children sounded harsh and cruel. It was selfish to feel so about the joy of others. My brother moved about with a very grave face. I tried to comfort him, by saying, “Take courage, Willie; brighter days will come by and by.”
“You don’t know any thing about it, Linda,” he replied. “We shall have to stay here all our days; we shall never be free.”
I argued that we were growing older and stronger, and that perhaps we might, before long, be allowed to hire our own time, and then we could earn money to buy our freedom. William declared this was much easier to say than to do; moreover, he did not intend to buy his freedom. We held daily controversies upon this subject.
Little attention was paid to the slaves’ meals in Dr. Flint’s house. If they could catch a bit of food while it was going, well and good. I gave myself no trouble on that score, for on my various errands I passed my grandmother’s house, where there was always something to spare for me. I was frequently threatened with punishment if I stopped there; and my grandmother, to avoid detaining me, often stood at the gate with something for my breakfast or dinner. I was indebted to her for all my comforts, spiritual or temporal. It was her labor that supplied my scanty wardrobe. I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.
While my grandmother was thus helping to support me from her hard earnings, the three hundred dollars she had lent her mistress were never repaid. When her mistress died, her son-in-law, Dr. Flint, was appointed executor. When grandmother applied to him for payment, he said the estate was insolvent, and the law prohibited payment. It did not, however, prohibit him from retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that money. I presume they will be handed down in the family, from generation to generation.
My grandmother’s mistress had always promised her that, at her death, she should be free; and it was said that in her will she made good the promise. But when the estate was settled, Dr. Flint told the faithful old servant that, under existing circumstances, it was necessary she should be sold.
On the appointed day, the customary advertisement was posted up, proclaiming that there would be a “public sale of negroes, horses, &c.” Dr. Flint called to tell my grandmother that he was unwilling to wound her feelings by putting her up at auction, and that he would prefer to dispose of her at private sale. My grandmother saw through his hypocrisy; she understood very well that he was ashamed of the job. She was a very spirited woman, and if he was base enough to sell her, when her mistress intended she should be free, she was determined the public should know it. She had for a long time supplied many families with crackers and preserves; consequently, “Aunt Marthy,” as she was called, was generally known, and every body who knew her respected her intelligence and good character. Her long and faithful service in the family was also well known, and the intention of her mistress to leave her free. When the day of sale came, she took her place among the chattels, and at the first call she sprang upon the auction-block. Many voices called out, “Shame! Shame! Who is going to sell you, aunt Marthy? Don’t stand there! That is no place for you.” Without saying a word, she quietly awaited her fate. No one bid for her, At last, a feeble voice said, “Fifty dollars.” It came from a maiden lady, seventy years old, the sister of my grandmother’s deceased mistress. She had lived forty years under the same roof with my grandmother; she knew how faithfully she had served her owners, and how cruelly she had been defrauded of her rights; and she resolved to protect her. The auctioneer waited for a higher bid; but her wishes were respected; no one bid above her. She could neither read nor write; and when the bill of sale was made out, she signed it with a cross. But what consequence was that, when she had a big heart overflowing with human kindness? She gave the old servant her freedom.
At that time, my grandmother was just fifty years old. Laborious years had passed since then; and now my brother and I were slaves to the man who had defrauded her of her money, and tried to defraud her of her freedom. One of my mother’s sisters, called Aunt Nancy, was also a slave in his family. She was a kind, good aunt to me; and supplied the place of both housekeeper and waiting maid to her mistress. She was, in fact, at the beginning and end of every thing.
Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church; but partaking of the Lord’s supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind. If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meagre fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.
Dr. Flint was an epicure. The cook never sent a dinner to his table without fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to his liking, he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her to eat every mouthful of it in his presence. The poor, hungry creature might not have objected to eating it; but she did not object to having her master cram it down her throat till she choked.
What People are Saying About This
“One of the major autobiographies of the African-American tradition.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Meet the Author
Harriet Jacobs (1813–97) was a reformer, Civil War and Reconstruction relief worker, and antislavery activist. Born a slave to mulatto parents in North Carolina, she was only fifteen when her master, Dr. Flint, began his pursuit of her. This abuse and the resulting oppression from Flint’s wife forced Jacobs to take drastic measures to protect herself, so she encouraged a relationship with Mr. Sands, an unmarried white lawyer for whom she bore two children. When the situation with Flint became intolerable, she left her children and took refuge in a small garret of her grandmother’s house, where she lived for seven years. She finally escaped to the North, and her children eventually followed. She managed to support herself while evading numerous attempts by Flint to return her to slavery. At age forty, Jacobs was purchased and then emancipated by an abolitionist who was Jacobs’s employer and friend. During the Civil War, Jacobs began a career working among black refugees. In 1863, she and her daughter moved to Alexandria, where they supplied emergency relief, organized primary medical care, and established the Jacobs Free School—black led and black taught—for the refugees. After the war, they sailed to England and successfully raised money for a home for Savannah’s black orphans and aged. Then they moved to Washington, DC, where they continued to work among the destitute freed people, and her daughter worked in the newly established “colored schools” and, later, at Howard University. In 1896, Harriet Jacobs was present at the organizing meetings of the National Association of Colored Women.
Myrlie Evers-Williams is the author of For Us, the Living, depicting the life of Medgar Evers and the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, and Watch Me Fly, her autobiography. Chairman emeritus of the NAACP, she is president and founder of the Medgar Evers Institute as well as CEO and president of MEW Associates, Inc.
Dawn Lundy Martin, PhD, is a poet, scholar, and assistant professor in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the poetry collections A Gathering Matter/A Matter of Gathering and Discipline, coeditor of The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, and a member of the avant-garde African-American poetics group the Black Took Collective.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I chose the book because it was a great deal, and I figured this is a topic I could definitely stand to know more about; but I was surprised to find that Harriet Jacobs was a woman I felt I could relate to, regardless of the centuries and culture gap between us. She writes with passion and intelligence, and her revelations of the cruelty of the slave trade are tempered with anecdotes of familial love and the kindness of others who are sympathetic to the plight of the slaves. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl reads as easily as Jane Eyre and if you are interested in narratives involving slavery, women in the 1800's, or simply a story about someone who clings to the hope of a better life and will suffer almost anything to achieve it, this book is worth your time.
Linda's story is one of the most inspiring stories that I have ever read. When I was done with this book I felt proud to be a woman of African descent. Though I still do not understand how something as foul as the institution of slavery could have been allowed to exist for so long, this story speaks of the unbreakable spirit of my ancestors, their unyielding drive to rise above their oppressors, their unwillingness to succumb if only in their minds and hearts to the absurd notion that they were just a piece of property. Linda's decision to focus on her children, educate them, and free them; her decision to let go of the unattainable idea of marriage in the presence of a predatory slave master speaks to her resilience, superb intellect, and the power of the human mind. This is an easy read though I had to stop a couple of times to wrap my mind around some of the atrocities being described.
I loved this book! This is the third slave narrative I have read this year, and this is the most compelling and endearing by far! The novel intertwined the narrative voice of a slave woman with the sense of sentimentality that was predominant in novels of the period. I would definitely recommend this novel to other readers of ethnically-influenced literature.
Easy read and very informative. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in America's past.
This is a book you can't put down. I was amazed how well written the book was. This is the true story of a women with integrity and decency who is forced to live a life of abuse, humiliation and fear. I gained an insight into slavery that I never had before.
I really enjoyed the book. I think that is crazy how someone can go through so much hardship and still have the courage to write about it and share it with the world. I like the intensity of the book and the commitment she had for getting her children and herself free, and how she went about doing it, how she became involved with another white man to get him to escape her own master and get the freedom she dreamed of.
When I purchased "Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl" I did not know what to expect. From the first few pages I was impressed with how well organized and easy to read the Narrative was. I highly recommend this book not just for those interested in books focusing on African American Studies, but for anyone interested in reading an original story of a Slave girl living in the anteblellum South. If you like Frederick Douglass's Narrartive, you certainly find Harriet Jocabs just as fascinating.
This book is written by a woman who although born a "slave" in America was determined to have freedom and equality for herself and her children. She suffered many hardships and acts of cruelty towards herself and her children but never saw herself as a "victim." Indeed, she saw herself as an equal to all other women and even to men! She was intelligent and blessed with wisdom and foresight and much of her life was spent trying to obtain freedom for herself and her children. This book is a "must read" for those who believe that slaves in America were treated as "children" and "family" by their masters. It is a strong reality check of what the truth was back then and gives insight into the strength and power of love for God, oneself and real family.
This is a must read!!! I loved reading this book! It was very interesting to read how this courageous woman was willing to risk her life by standing up for herself and her children. She took great risks and came near death a few times to obtain her freedom; to live in a space where you are barely ble to move for as long as she did is an unthinkable act. She kept her faith in God and because of that she was able to obtain her freedom gor herself and children.
i had to read this book for school and i really liked it!!!
i had to read this for class i would read it again for leisure. the only reason i dont give it more stars is because the way it is written is more autobiographical though she fictionalizes her name so as not to point at her identity directly. but this is a great book about the life of a slave girl, right up there with douglas. though douglas's is better.
what a mother won't do for her children. how very sad a story of life during slavery and the treachery that was bestowed on a race of people.
This book was very well written! It was a very sad story, and gave the reader insight into what it was like to grow up as an African slave in the South during one of the darkest times in American history. I would suggest to those who are interested in purchasing this book that they are at a more advanced level of reading. Great book!!!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as it gave me a better understanding of what atrocities and sufferings slaves had to deal with. Even when they risked their lives to travel up North, and when they arrived there they were still treated with such indignities. It was even more compelling at how a black woman at this time was able to put into words her story and to have it published; that was, at that time, unheard of. Especially knowing it was against the law for a black person to learn to read or write. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to get a better understanding of this horrific time in US history CL10801
I truly treasure this piece. Harriet Jacobs is eloquent and altogether bewitching in her narrative. I could not put it down. This is for certain one of my favorite books of all time. For me, I found her tone, narrative, and description just right. It is an important book that I think should be required for middle school students to read.
I realy appreciated this woman's heart wrenching story. I had a hard time puting my nok down. THE ONLY COMPLAINT i have is that the copy was a bit bad. There were many mispelled word...I mean it was so bad that you really werent able to guess what the word was. Other than that I wouls recommend. I LOVE CLASSICS and am only sorry that I didnt read this sooner.
Really enjoyed and it was one of the 1st books I got for my nook. I needed it to write a paper for school and usually books you have to read are boring. This one was really enjoyable. Just still need to work out how to cite this source from the nook.
This was a hard one to put down. As a mother, I could truly relate to just how powerful and motivating a mother's love for her children can be.
Harriet Jacobs writes to us from a place in history most of us have never been exposed to. Without such notable classics with which to enlighten our limited experience, none of us would be able to continue conversing upon controversial subject matter as we pull forward into this century. My immediate response when I turned the last page was...'oh, wish I had not read so swiftly!!'...
Human bondage is a scar on our nation¿s history. It tore through the land of America as wildfire would thrash ravenously through sun-dried hills during summer. Yet, despite the complaints of slavery sprinkled throughout the history books of our contemporary era, nothing can be a more wretchedly vibrant window into the procedure of slavery than a first-hand account. `Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl¿ has the remarkably real abilities of a fictitious time machine, transporting the reader back through the centuries to the desolate routine of one whose spirit has been tied by the will of another, an equal human. Throughout the course of the book, the reader is acquainted with the characters, and forms a virtual friendship with such heroes of the fictitiously represented past. A must read for those eager to view the past through real, human eyes, `Incidents¿ will forever grace your bookshelf with vivid memories, and the inspiring story of good finally triumphing over a heartless, evil grasp.
This is such an exquisite read. I finished it in less than a day because I couldn't put it down. Marvelous!
Offers an insight on the slave's point of view. A bit hard to take in at times, though.
It is a book that you well for sure pass the author on to your friends
I love this book. Couldn't drop it. A must read!
The reality of the suffering slavery brought about is a disgrace to the human race. My heart ached so much for the mothers and their babies. To have no say so what so ever to live life as a person just because of color. I can not understand why this was so.