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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

by Harriet Jacobs

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Being a subscriber to Brown Girl Collective, a Facebook page that regularly features inspirational Black women in history, I happened upon the life story of Harriet Jacobs, a runaway slave. Learning she had written a book (under the pseudonym Linda Brent), I knew this was a must read and promptly got it from Amazon. When the book arrived, I opened its pages tentatively, and indeed, at first, I wasn't certain I could make it all the way through. Notwithstanding the uncomfortable topic, I steeled myself, and very soon I was unable to put this little gem of a book down. As I read, I kept thinking I couldn't believe it hadn't been made into a movie, because this true story has it all: an engrossing story that keeps the reader on pins and needles; intriguing personalities, including the indomitable Harriet; and the backdrop of a society so sick and depraved in nature that it took its toll on all involved.

In all my years, I have never read a real-life slave account, and I fully expected this story to be rather dry and unappealing. Instead, I was treated to a tale that rivals any of the best novels I've ever read. Harriet tells her story with such heart, the reader can feel the pain, anger, fear, and despair she endured for years. Even fully aware of her ultimate fate before I started reading (she manages to make it North as a runaway), I still found myself worried and anxious as I read. Her journey to freedom is anything but a straight line, and the events leading to her freedom are fraught with tension and suspense. Fiction could not be any better.

Then, there are the personalities that populate the story. There's Harriet herself, a proudly stubborn girl who refuses to give into her master and is determined to secure both her and her children's freedom at almost unbelievable cost to herself. Her master Dr. Flint is almost inhuman....nothing less than sick, jealous, and vindictive, determined that if he cannot have her himself, no one else ever will and she will never go free. Mrs. Flint is equally unhinged, hating Harriet because of her husband's obsession. And then, there are the good souls: Harriet's beloved grandmother who would do anything for her; her uncles and brothers who try to protect her; and the host of friends, both Black and white, who try to help Harriet. As she writes, Ms. Jacobs gives her laser-beam perceptions on people, acknowledging the good and the bad in people whether no matter their color.

And this brings us to the setting of the antebellum South, a sick, depraved society that infected everyone in its grip. Indeed, one can say that everyone was a victim in this society. To be clear, I am certainly not saying that Whites suffered anywhere near what African slaves did under the system. There is simply no comparison when one reads of slashing tendons in the ankles to prevent runaways, whippings, selling off family members, denying food to slaves too old to work..the list goes on. Nevertheless, in Dr. Flint and his wife, one can see how divorced from humanity this system caused many southern Whites to become. When one is born and suckled in such depravity, what chance do most have to rise above it and be something other than inhuman? Surely, some did, as we see in Harriet's story, but for the most part, we are a product of our environment. This book opened my eyes even further to this fact, and helps further understanding of why our country is as it is even 150 years after slavery.

In the end, I urge everyone to read this book. It is enlightening, and also, just plain good reading. ( )
  LitLoversLane | Feb 28, 2014 |
Powerful autobiography of Harriet Jacobs; this story of her life growing up as a slave and her eventual escape into the North is enhanced by the matter-of-fact manner which she uses to describe some terrible conditions. By matter-of-fact, I don't mean that she is accepting of these conditions - she speaks passionately about the injustices, cruelty, and hypocrisy she sees both in the south and the north - but she doesn't dramatize when she is describing them. I found this factual tone to make the story more compelling, so much so that I couldn't stop once I started.

To have written and published this in 1861 shows what tremendous strength of character Harriet Jacobs had, especially as she includes some fairly scathing commentary on the racism she and her children faced in the "free states" of New York and Massachusetts. I can see how incendiary this book must have been when it came out! Even as an emancipated woman living in a free state, it must have been dangerous for her (even using a pseudonym). ( )
  leslie.98 | Feb 24, 2014 |
Elizabeth Klett is absolutely wonderful narrating this autobiography. I couldn't stop listening once I had started!

Harriet Jacobs tells her story in such a straightforward manner as to compell belief, and while the abuses she describes are now well-known, it must have taken a tremendous amount of strength of mind to write and publish this in 1861. She not only documents the terrible degradations of slavery, but also the racism she and her children are forced to undergo in the "free states" of New York and Massachusetts. ( )
  leslie.98 | Feb 24, 2014 |
One of first female slave narratives and the best. From NC to north and reunion with her children. Documents female sexual exploitation. ( )
  clifforddham | Feb 3, 2014 |
For the most part, stories like this are not ones that I read willingly. I am not someone who follows after those persecuted and who have gone through many hardships that are based on reality because, like everyone else, I have enough hardships and things in my own life that I have to deal with. I read usually to get away from reality, and to expand the creativity and horizons of my imaginative mind. Nevertheless, I will give credit where credit is due, and although I did not love this story--for how could anyone love a tale of such great wrongs and horrors?--I respect it and truly was able to find my way through it without having the usual obscenities and injustices of slavery shoved down my throat.

I speak harshly, and many people would resent me for that. I don't deny that many people still are vulgar enough not to take matters like this seriously, and there is no way that I wouldn't take the cruelties of this to heart and advocate every right of every person ever enslaved in this country to shout their experiences and rights, and rub them in the faces of those who would ignore them. My own personal feelings are biased because of my education, where too often I had tales like this shoved daily down my throat in every literature class when all I wanted to do was to read something that would cater to my child-like imagination. I almost never received it.

Harriet Jacobs account of her own life experiences are a blessing to people like us, who never had to experience what she went through, and yet could face every single ounce of the horrors and injuries that she bore as she strove for her freedom, for her children's freedom, and for the safety of those around her who helped where help was least expected. It is an account that gives insight, that rumbles onwards with defiant and knowledgeable experience, and shows us all the things that a woman must go through when she is faced with the circumstance of slavery. And while fiendish, while cruel, while vile and disgusting--everything that Jacobs gave us was an account that awoke in us the ability to acknowledge what she went through, without being turned away by the grotesque descriptions of things already too well known. At least, in my part, too often thrown in my face.

I appreciated Jacobs for that, for writing something that for once did not try to force its way into my head and fill my mind with things that contaminated it more than educated it. Should the truth be concealed from us? Absolutely not! Can the truth be harsh? Of course it can. But thank the blessed Lord that someone had the decency to tell us her story without blatantly describing the--*Shudders*--the WORDS that planted slimy, obscene thoughts in a young girl's skull, or the way she was TOUCHED... *Turns away her face in disgust and horror* PLEASE. Do I understand that that's what some women went through in slavery and that it was horrible? YES. I DO. But God help me! All the absolutely base things that were written and described that I NEVER wanted to have to entertain! A child is smart enough to know when and what horrors lurk in words even when those acts of vileness are not described and only hinted at. Jacobs either could not bear to recount those things to us out of her own unwillingness to relive them in such graphic detail, or she was kind enough to spare us the horror of what she went through in order to give us the greater message: that she STROVE for her freedom, because she knew it was a God-given right to her and her children, and by keeping faith, by doing her very best and being an honorable, determined, persevering woman, she achieved something that should have been hers from the very beginning. It is a success story unlike so many others, and one well worth listening to.

For that discretion alone, and her magnificent character, I would give the book the highest rating, but I cannot lie and say it was amazing when I felt nothing of that feeling evoked in me throughout its pages. Yet, in comparison to the other books I have read on the subject, this one far outdoes the others. Some would say blasphemy! That I'm a coward and a poltroon, who cannot handle the truth. I tell them if they want to eat up all those disgusting details of others' sufferings, then go right ahead! I honor and respect the woman with enough discretion to CARE about what she reveals, and who still finds a way to leave us with the unblemished truths to think about while saving us from the tortures of her own experiences. It doesn't undermine them. Not one bit. It only heightens my respect and admiration for her, and though this has been written so long, long ago, I wish I could go up to her and shake her hand, with tears in my eyes. Because for this woman, no words are enough to express the joy I feel for her, and what she finally was able to receive in this life.

It's a good book. Is it fantastic? Like I said, something like this cannot be fantastic, as far as I'm concerned. It was, however, something I felt was worth the reading. On that note, if you would enjoy something written upon the subject matters it touches--slavery, oppressed women, and the like--then it's recommended. Pick it up. It's good for a read. ( )
  N.T.Embe | Dec 31, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Harriet Jacobsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Child, Harriet Annsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Child, Lydia MariaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacobs, John S.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yellin, Jean FaganEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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
Dedication
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I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.
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In what has become a landmark of American history and literature, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl recounts the incredible but true story of Harriet Jacobs, born a slave in North Carolina in 1813. Her tale gains its importance from her descriptions, in great and painful detail, of the sexual exploitation that daily haunted her life-and the life of every other black female slave. As a child, Harriet Jacobs remained blissfully unaware that she was a slave until the deaths of both her mother and a benevolent mistress exposed her to a sexually predatory master, Dr. Flint. Determined to escape, she spends seven years hidden away in a garret in her grandmother's house, three feet high at its tallest point, with almost no air or light, and with only glimpses of her children to sustain her courage. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, she finally wins her battle for freedom by escaping to the North in 1842. A powerful, unflinching portrayal of the brutality of slave life, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl stands alongside Frederick Douglass's classic autobiographies as one of the most significant slave narratives ever written.… (more)

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