Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a compelling novel written by Harriet Ann Jacobs, a former slave. Born as a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, the only life Harriet knew was that of a slave. Growing up in the south as a young African American girl caused Harriet a life of hardships that must be faced to find freedom. The time of 1836 to 1860 was often nicknamed the antebellum period. During the Antebellum period is was very much legal to hold African Americans as slaves to endlessly do work for their master with no pay.
Slaves were treated like property, often only eating a piece of bread for the entire week and being whipped if they were to eat any more. Most of the young slave girls at the young age of 14 or 15 were sexually assaulted by their master, and many of them giving birth to more slaves. Hundreds of slaves would risk their lives and flee to the northern states in order to escape the morsel of a life they were actually given. The northern states during this time were not holders of slaves. In fact, numerous groups were formed of people called “abolitionists’. Abolitionists were citizens who were anti-slavery.
They would help refugees from the north, and they fought for freedom everywhere in America. When Harriet escaped to the north, an abolitionist essentially helped her find her brother John S. Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girls shares the sad but true struggles a slave girl encountered on her journey to become a free woman. As Harriet Jacobs wrote her novel, she showed main-stream audiences, to look into her complicated life as a slave girl. She wrote this book so people everywhere can try to comprehend the inhuman way that any slave must have lived during the antebellum in southern states.
Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to illustrate the corrupt, unjust, and crooked situations that slave girls encountered every day on the plantations. From a young age to adulthood, Harriet Jacobs shared her exploits with the audience chronologically from year to year. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl begins with the introduction of her family. Because Harriet did not want to be caught writing this novel, she made up fake names for her brother, herself, and other slaves and slaveholders in the book. Harriet went by ‘Linda’ in the book to conceal her real name.
Harriet had two parents, a grandmother, and a younger brother. Her father, Elijah, and mother, Delilah, both tried their hardest to prevent any knowledge that she could be a slave, so Harriet was happily unaware that she was a slave until the death of her mother. Harriet then moved in with her mother’s mistress, Margret Horniblow, who taught her how to read and write. Although she lived as a slave, her mistress promised her mother she would take good care of Harriet and her little brother.
However, her mistress soon died and Harriet was moved to Dr. James Norcom’s plantation. She quickly realized that in the eyes of any master, all she was to them was property. Harriet was constantly sexually abused and stalked by her master at such a young age. Harriet often visits her grandmother, Molly Horniblow who was granted freedom and owns a house still in Edenton. She would go to her grandmother as a comfort when times grew harder as a slave girl. Not long later, Harriet met a lover named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a white lawyer, with whom she gives birth to her son, Joseph, and her daughter, Louisa Matilda.
When Dr. Norcom finds out about Harriet being pregnant, he does everything in his power to make her life miserable. Because of Mrs. Norcom’s jealousy and Dr. Norcom’s anger, he sends her off to a small cottage with her children. Throughout the novel, all Harriet ever wanted was to be free with her children, and she begged for Mr. Sawyer to buy his children’s freedom. Soon Dr. Norcom called for Harriet and her children to be brought back to the plantation. Harriet and her daughter, Louisa, unwillingly went back to the plantation to be broke in.
According to Harriet, her motto was “Give me liberty, or give me death! ” and with these words in her head she ran away into hiding (111). As she moved around from hiding place to hiding place, Harriet had to witness her kids growing up without her. Her children only two and four were forced in and out of jail as Dr. Norcom continually searched for Harriet. Finally, Harriet settled in her grandmother’s attic where she stayed for seven years. The only activities available were watching her kids through a small peephole, reading the bible, and sleeping.
Harriet was in this space for so long that she had to learn how to walk again. In the time she was up there, her children were purchased by Mr. Sawyer and lived with their grandmother too. Louisa has already been sent to the north to work as a maid, and Joseph Soon would soon fled to the north. Then suddenly, a chance to escape to the north opened. Thanks to the help of Harriet’s uncle, Benjamin, she fled by boat with another runaway slave. After ten rough days, they safely landed in Philadelphia, and an abolitionist helped her to Boston.
There, Harriet found employment as a nanny for a very kind English woman named Mrs. Mary Stace Willis. As she continually worked, Harriet would go into constant hiding because of Dr. Norcom, until he died. Still after, his children searched for poor Harriet. In a toil of unfortunate events, Mrs. Willis dies, and Harriet went with Mr. Willis to England. There she stated to feel the same as everyone else. At this time, Louisa was in a boarding school, and Joseph was in California with Uncle William. Finally, when Harriet returned to the states, Mr.
Willis’s new wife bought her freedom. Although her freedom was bought, Harriet was liberated to die a free woman. Like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the two novels, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass: an American Slave and Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave were both written during the antebellum period in America. The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass: an American Slave was written by Fredrick Douglass himself just as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written by Harriet herself.
Along with Harriet, Douglass was born a slave in the early 1800’s, and all he desired was freedom. Growing up as children, both Harriet and Douglass learned how to read and write from their mistress or other slaves. However, there comes a point where the life of Douglass differs from that of Harriet. Although no slave life is a good life, Fredrick Douglas’ life was not as rough as Harriet’s. He grew up and served in the houses in Baltimore Maryland, and he went to Sabbath School where he learned and taught. Douglass saves money that he earned and made an escape to New York.
Along with Harriet, Douglass refrained from using details when describing his journeys to the north to protect other fellow slaves. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was, like Harriet, written by William Brown himself. Along with Douglass and Jacobs, William Brown was also born in the early 1800s as a slave. He grew up in and around St. Louis, Missouri on plantations, working in houses, and eventually on a steamboat. Just as Harriet and Douglass, Brown eventually escaped to New York, and then eventually Canada. However, something sets Brown apart from Jacobs and Douglass.
For nine years, Brown worked aboard a Lake Erie steamboat while concurrently acting as an Underground Railroad conductor in Buffalo, New York. Although all three slave narratives tell different stories of their lives as a slave, they all had the same desire for freedom, and could not settle until freedom was reached. In the eyes of the reader, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a detailed, well written, and thorough description of how it was to live as a slave during the antebellum period of history. Reading about slavery in the eyes of a slave herself allowed me to gain an emotional connection to Jacobs and her story.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet states, “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” (p. 5). Continually throughout the novel, Harriet makes sure to address the reader by saying that none of her story is fiction. The audience, including myself, wants to pretend that all of the stories she tells are fiction, but all that is stated is the truth. This also shows the bravery that Harriet has in everything she has accomplished as a slave. It allows the audience to appreciate the courage that Jacobs had.
Along with sharing compelling stories of her life, Harriet also was very successful and persuasive in support of her argument. Her goal was to show the reader how corrupt and inhumane slavery was by giving examples of situations that shaped her as a person while growing up. Harriet wanted to impact the reader’s mind of what a cruel world it was to live in as a slave woman in the antebellum period. Being whipped for eating too much food, jailed for the birth of a kid, and the torn hearts of mothers ripped away from their children were all common yet cruel punishments for slaves in the south.
Instead of reacting poorly and causing harm to herself, Harriet stuck to the Bible for guidance. Harriet stated, “As stated in the Bible, Exodus 20:15, the eighth commandment is ‘Thou Shalt not steal” (55). Although it may just be an extra morsel of food, Harriet stuck by the laws of the Bible, no matter how gruesome the circumstances. Through everything that happened, Harriet made sure that the reader knew she was not telling all these stories to feel sympathy, but to allow the reader to look into the life of an American slave.
While doing this, Harriet correctly supported her claim about the cruel way she and other slaves lived. Harriet Jacobs did an incredible job when writing, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Sharing her life story was clearly something she did not do for herself. She made it clear she did not want compassion or sympathy, but she wanted action. Harriet had a clear argument- she wanted the audience to be aware of her situation, so that other enslaved people, may be set free. By sharing her life’s journey, she not only opened my eyes even wider to Americas past, but also many other around the world.
Reading this narrative by Jacobs allowed for the increase of knowledge in the area of American history, especially the antebellum period. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl correctly shows the life of an average yet courageous slave woman. Harriet’s strong mindset and determination for freedom helped her get through the journey called life. Day by day, Jacobs pushed through in order to reach her final goal. Not only freedom for herself, but freedom for all slaves- young, old, male, or female. Slavery was not and still is not acceptable under any circumstance.
The conditions of an African American slave in America were intolerable, inhumane, and unacceptable. There is no person who should ever be treated as an object and forced to do work for no pay. I am and will forever be grateful to Harriet Jacobs for sharing her life story with me, the reader. My eyes have been forever opened to the brutality that she went through just to call her kids her own and receive freedom. Freedom should be free and available for every human on earth. Nobody should every have to buy their own freedom.
Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to illustrate the corrupt, unjust, and crooked situations that slave girls encountered every day on the plantations. Through events that she wrote about to people that she met, Harriet was able to accurately display the unfair life of a slave woman. Although American History is filled with events we all wish we could forget, it is important that history is never forgotten. Although we cannot change the past, we work to make America a better future for all genders and races, where everyone is born free, and everyone can die free.