The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North. Written and published in 1861 after Jacobs’ harrowing escape from a vile and predatory master, the memoir delivers a powerful and unflinching portrayal of the abuses and hypocrisy of the master-slave relationship. Jacobs writes frankly of the horrors she suffered as a slave, her eventual escape after several unsuccessful attempts, and her seven years in self-imposed exile, hiding in a coffin-like “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch. A rare firsthand account of a courageous woman’s determination and endurance, this inspirational story also represents a valuable historical record of the continuing battle for freedom and the preservation of family.
I could not participate in an event such as #OwnVoicesOctober without reading a personal slave narrative. This country was founded on the backs of women and men such as Harriet Jacobs, and it’s so important to hear their stories. Harriet’s has been in my Kindle for a long time now, and so this was a good week to finally read about her journey.
It’s amazing what you will learn when you open your heart to listen. In my head I know that slavery was awful, all of it was awful, but still sometimes it gets so romanticized that I lose track. The Mammy trope, the stoic, loyal butler. That is a weakness–the ingrained prejudices that come to haunt me. But then I read Harriet’s story, and it slams that door shut so hard. Sometimes I just need a slap across the face, you know? This is that kind of book.
There’s a section of the book where she is talking about her own story, versus that of other slaves. Her master, Dr. Flint, has written a letter to her to convince her to come home while she is in hiding. The slimey bastard talks about how she is family and how if she comes back she’ll be treated like one of their own, she isn’t a slave, not really. It’s pretty gross. And Harriet’s response to us the reader is that yes, she knows that to many people, the perception could be that her life is pretty good at Dr. Flint’s. She doesn’t get beaten, she isn’t working the fields. She eats well, she dresses well, and she has most of her family around her. But she is still a slave. She is still at the mercy of Dr. Flint, who sexually abuses her and thinks it is ok because he owns her. She still has to worry about her children being sold away from her–and used as leverage.
A slave was a slave was a slave. Yes, some masters cared about their slaves and not every one was beaten horribly, but they were still slaves. And we owe it to them to remember that. This is why I read these books every so often. I need the reminder, I need the help. It’s the way I’m going to get that ingrained prejudice out of my system. Constant vigilance.