Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs


JacobsUndeniably, slavery is one of America’s darkest moments.  It was an extremely dehumanizing system of exploitation and violence that destroyed families, claimed lives and helped propel the nation towards the Civil War.  Even today, the issue is hotly contested as we continue to reconcile with its residual effects.  We have come a very long way from the era of legalized slavery in the United States but still have a long way to go before achieving true equality for all.  Black Americans have long suffered grave injustices but there is no need to go into them here.  Instead, the focus will be on this autobiography that was written by a former slave named Harriet Jacobs (1813 or 1815 – 1897).   In the book, the main character has the pseudonym of Linda Brent, who is the slave of the book’s antagonists, Dr. Flint and his family.  And what she reveals about her life reaffirms the many dark truths about a slave’s life. 

It may be hard for some readers to even approach the subject matter due to its nature but in the early 1800s, Jacobs’ experience was the daily reality for thousands of black men and women living in the Deep South. However, in this case there is a rare exception: Linda knows how to read and write.  Generally, it was deeply forbidden for slave to become literate and nearly all faced death if it was discovered they had been reading and writing without the slave-owner’s knowledge.  After introducing us to her immediate family, the story picks up in pace when Dr. Flint enters the picture.  Linda finds herself maturing and catches the roving eye of the doctor, resulting in Mrs. Flint making Linda the target of her rage. Dr. Flint’s infatuation sets the tone for the rest of the book which is a struggle between good and evil until the very end. Linda’s brother Benjamin, provides us with the first act of resistance which shows how many blacks refused to be part of the degrading system of slavery.  He would not be the last and even news of Nat Turner’s (1800-1831) rebellion reaches our main character.  Linda possesses a keen eye to observe the dysfunction of slavery and American society.  She reflects on the plight of the black man and makes a statement that captures the very essence of humiliation and degradation endured by black people: 

“I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work.” 

Dr. Flint is relentless in his pursuit and develops a fanatical obsession with ruling every aspect of her life.  The two engage in a cat and mouse game with Linda doing her best to avoid the doctor’s advances.  Her grandmother serves as her guardian angel but is limited in her capacity due to her status as a slave.  Linda eventually becomes a mother herself and the rage of the doctor at this perceived “indignation” only reinforces her will to one day become free.  The moment of clarity that comes to her, sets the stage for the second part of the book as she makes her break and finds a way north with the help of another guardian angel who finds a way for her to go north to the Free States. 

Upon arrival in the North, Linda soon embraces a new world.  And while prejudice still exists, she is finally able to live on her terms and away from the doctor. But he proves to be more resilient than expected and his actions to reclaiming her provide the remainder of the book with its heightened suspense that will keep readers in its grip. Linda moves throughout the Northeast, stopping in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  And incredibly, she experiences a trip abroad that widens her perspective on life in America.  Before returning she informs us that: 

“I remained abroad ten months, which was much longer than I had anticipated. During all that time, I never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color. Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till the time came for us to return to America.” 

Although prejudice did and does exist in Europe, the American system of slavery is noted for its brutality.  And America’s dark past with Jim Crow and other systems of discrimination have had profound effects on current day affairs. But her comment, reminds me of how the legendary musician Miles Davis (1926-1991) felt about Paris and returning to America.  Linda does love her country and has found happiness in the North, far removed from the clutches of Dr. Flint.  But a series of events results in her relocating to escape slave hunters. And the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sends shockwaves through the communities of free blacks and Abolitionists determined to end slavery once and for all.   She does not fall victim to the act in the story and continues to live as a free woman, due to the interventions of a close friend who could not accept seeing her constantly fleeing for her life.  Dr. Flint also meets his fate in the book and it helps bring the story to the conclusion we all will be hoping for.  And although this is just one account of life in bondage, there were millions of others who had similar experiences.  This story is a critical part of America’s dark and ugly past that continues to haunt us today.  Highly recommended. 

Study the past if you would define the future”  ― Confucius


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