Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Last summer I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This is a must read. Uncle Tom’s Cabin made a significant contribution to the change in our nation regarding how we view and treat our fellow man, and it made an impact throughout the world.  The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center has an article about the work and the events surrounding the publication and time period on their website.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Title Page

Photo CC – by Katherine Hala

This week I decided to take a rabbit trail in my independent learning project. When reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I wondered how accurate the depiction was of slavery. There were many aspects to the issue presented. Some made me rejoice in the strength and bravery of mankind, and even more left me brokenhearted at the depth to which man has fallen. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the most difficult pieces of literature that I have ever read.

I wanted to dig deeper into the issue of slavery in the United States. I have read the works of Mark Twain where slavery is depicted as a fact of life. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which addresses race relations in the South in the mid-20th century. I wanted to see what slavery was like, not from the perspective of a storyteller, but from one who lived this terrible institution.

This week I read an autobiography written by an escaped slave and abolitionist named Harriet Ann Jacobs. The book is called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. The book was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861.

Image retrieved from bet.com

The book talks about slavery, specifically how women were treated in slavery. After reading this book I understood why Harriet Beecher Stowe has the women so desperate to escape in her work. Rather than give a recap of the book, I would like to share a few quotes that impacted me while reading about the life of Harriet Jacobs.

The cost of enslavement

In talking about the abuse that slave women endured, Jacobs writes,

[Slavery] makes white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughter, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.

Yet few slaveholders seems to be aware of the widespread moral ruin occasioned by this wicked system.

Talking about the effect this has on the enslaved men she says,

Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters.

I cannot even comprehend the pain endured by the women who were forced to live this life. The author in her work shows such character by not only presenting her point of view, but in sharing the overall effect of these actions on all involved. This is only two quotes from the book that deal with the abuse women were made to endure. I think that after reading this account, the events of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were mild by comparison. Jacobs also talks about other events that she witnessed and was a part of that corroborate Stowe’s work.

The purchase of life

At the end of the book, Harriet Jacobs had been an escaped slave for years. Her owners had found out where she lived and went to New York to retrieve her. The woman that she worked for in New York sent her away and then arranged to purchase the freedom of Harriet. She succeeded at the cost of $300. Though Harriet shares this should have made her happy, she writes this about her feelings in a letter,

I thank you for your kind expressions in regard to my freedom; but the freedom I had before the money was paid was dearer to me. God gave me that freedom; but man put God’s image in the scales with the paltry sum of three hundred dollars.

I believe that this is at the heart of what made slavery such a tragedy; as people we placed the premise that all men were created equal aside. We as a nation of people decided that men and women, who were made in the image of God, could be sold and treated like little more than cattle.

. . .

I recommend the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As a companion piece, I would suggest reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Though one work altered the opinion of a nation, the other relates a firsthand account of why the minds of the people needed to be changed.

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4 thoughts on “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

  1. Wow! Saying that you are a reader is quite an understatement! This book sounds so amazing that I am very tempted to read it now, even with my busy schedule. I have always been fascinated with books of this measure. I love hearing about what life used to be like and how people were able to strive and overcome their hardships in life by staying true to themselves and what they believe in! I’m pretty sure I have told you before, but I love that this is your project because I don’t always have the time that I’d like to ready so I get to live vicariously through you this semester (:

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  2. Thank you, Shelby! This is a good book. It is heartbreaking and inspiring to read about real people who face challenges. I certainly makes me thankful that my life is what it is, and encourages me when I face challenges myself. Enjoy the book!

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