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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [Book Review]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative written by Harriet Jacobs that covers her childhood and adulthood. Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, NC and later escaped North with hopes of reuniting with her children. The book shares some similarities with 12 Years a Slave if you can imagine it from the perspective of Patsey. It was written under the pseudonym of Linda Brent to preserve Harriet Jacobs’ and her family’s safety.

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It is unreal to imagine that there was a time in recent history when humans owned and sold other humans. And even more unfathomable that society found it acceptable. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’s very personal perspective drove home these points but they are still inconceivable to me.

The book was especially heartbreaking when it delved into the experience of children growing up in slavery. A solid family structure is important to childhood development. The dangers and unwritten social rules of existing in slavery would have made these family ties even more crucial. The warm love between a parent and child could have provided some respite from the hardship of bondage.

The precariousness of family relations reflected the perilous state of slaves as individuals. Seen as little more than chattel, slaves weren’t recognized as having personhood. Because slaves weren’t respected as people, neither were their bodies or relationships.

Slave women were at the mercy of the men that owned, oversaw, or otherwise came into contact with them. White supremacy coupled with chauvinism made them more vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment. The men that preyed on these women still regarded them and their children as slaves and treated them as such. There was a delineation between the children of such a man’s wife and his children with women held in bondage.

Slave women brought children into the world (with or without their consent). Yet others defined their parental authority. Their limited civil rights curtailed their ability to protect themselves and their offspring. Like any other mother, they carried for nine months, delivered, and loved their children from infancy. But society and the slave institution said these children were not theirs. And the difference between spending your life with the people you love and never seeing them again could rest on someone’s mood or finances.

For some time, there was controversy over whether Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a factual or fictional account. The use of a pseudonym led some to regard the book as a novel. It also differed in perspective and style from other slave narratives. Dr. Jean Fagan Yellin confirmed the book’s legitimacy by connecting the characters and events to the life of Harriet Jacobs.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a moving narrative but I had to adjust to the writing style. Jacobs discussed some difficult topics in a somewhat roundabout manner. They’re important to the story but possible to overlook or not grasp the full extent. I got that Dr. Flint was an ass (as was his wife) who tried to break her spirit. But didn’t catch on right away about his reasons for doing so and his wife’s reason for hating Jacobs.

Recommendations

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl touches on slavery, civil rights, and women’s rights. It’s a quick read that you’ll spend more time thinking about and discussing. The book itself isn’t polarizing but the themes could start some pretty good discussions.

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