Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Celebrating Black History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Patricia Selinger, Head of Preservation
This book was the first full-length narrative written by a slave in America. When it was originally published in 1861 it created a heated controversy. Those for slavery denounced it as fiction, written by and for abolitionists. It was said that a real slave, even one who had been taught to read and write, could never write so well. That the author used a pseudonym for herself and the people she wrote about only added to the argument against the book's authenticity. Controversy aside, the book stands on its own as a narrative of a woman born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. To escape she hid for seven years in a small attic over a store room waiting for the right opportunity, which finally came when she was 29. Even then she had to hide in northern cities from her pursuers -- bounty hunters and her former master’s family.
This book revealed to me the complicity of society in the slave economy. I had deluded myself into thinking that those who did not own slaves were somehow removed from slavery. Yet they were public servants and businessmen and laborers who all benefited from slavery. Accounts describing townspeople raiding slave cabins to take whatever they pleased, even under the eye of the owner, angered me. Descriptions of her master's sexual harassment and torment appealed to women, then and now, to have compassion and denounce slavery. Her master's pride demanded compliance which she never gave. Yet she did compromise her principles and gave herself to an unmarried landowner of a higher class, by whom she had two children. While this effectively prevented her owner from raping her, it didn’t stop him from constantly reminding her of what he could do…if he wanted. She was not alone in her torment. Her sexual decisions were a source of shame to her, but they also demonstrated how she had at least exercised her freedom of choice. Many women of the time had no such freedom. I gained new insight into the fate of slave women who had both color and gender working against them.
Harriet Jacobs' life is admirable for overcoming obstacles and purity of purpose. After 1865 she was active in the Freedman's Bureau and organized education, health care, and necessities for African-Americans making the transition to freedom. Her life and values are a shining example for us all to do more to help others and follow our ideals.
The library’s copy of this book is a Norton Critical Edition which provides extra material to put the book in context. It includes letters that authenticate the work as that of Harriet Jacobs, other works by Jacobs, reviews at the time of its publication, published articles, and criticism, which are a compelling aside. I highly recommend this book.