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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself

By: Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself is an autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, a mother and fugitive slave, published in 1861 by L. Maria Child, who edited the book for its author. Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book documents Jacobs's life as a slave and how she gained freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs contributed to the genre of slave narrative by using the techniques of sentimental novels "to address race and gender issues." She explores the struggles and sexual abuse that female slaves faced as well as their efforts to practice motherhood and protect their children when their children might be sold away. In the book, Jacobs addresses white Northern women who fail to comprehend the evils of slavery. She makes direct appeals to their humanity to expand their knowledge and influence their thoughts about slavery as an institution. Jacobs composed Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl after her escape to New York, while living and working at Idlewild, the home of writer and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the narrator's childhood and the story of her grandmother until she got her freedom. The narrator's story is then continued in chapters 4 to 7, which tell of the longing for freedom she shares with her uncle Benjamin and her brother William, Benjamin's escape, the sexual harassment by Dr. Flint, the jealousy of his wife, and the lover who she is forbidden to marry. Chapters 10 and 11 tell of her affair with Mr. Sands and the birth of her first child. Chapters 14 to 21 tell of the birth of her second child, her removal from the town to Flint's plantation, her flight and her concealment in her grandmother's garret. The nearly seven years she had to spend in that narrow place are described in chapters 22 to 28, the last chapters of which concentrate on the fate of family members during that time: the escape of her brother William (chapter 26), the plans made for the children (27), and the cruel treatment and death of her aunt Nancy (28). Her dramatic escape to Philadelphia is the subject of chapters 29 and 30. Chapters 31 to 36 describe her short stay in Philadelphia, her reunion with the children, her new work as nanny for the Bruce family, and her flight to Boston when she is threatened with recapture by Flint. Chapter 35 focusses on her experiences with northern racism. Her journey to England with Mr. Bruce and his baby Mary is the subject of chapter 37. Finally, chapters 38 to 41 deal with renewed threats of recapture, which are made much more serious by the Fugitive Slave Law, the "confession" of her affair with Mr. Sands to her daughter, her stay with Isaac and Amy Post in Rochester, the final attempt of her legal owner to capture her, the obtaining of her legal freedom, and the death of her grandmother.


The other chapters are dedicated to special subjects: Chapter 3 describes the hiring out and selling of slaves on New Year's Day, chapter 8 is called What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North, chapter 9 gives various example of cruel treatment of slaves, chapter 12 describes the narrator's experience of the anti-black violence in the wake of Nat Turner's Rebellion, and chapter 13 is called The Church And Slavery.

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Harriet Jacobs

United States

Harriet Jacobs was an African-American writer, whose autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, is now considered an "American classic". B...

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