Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.
Introduction to Life of a Slave Girl
Some of the most popular books and movies today, like Divergent and The Hunger Games, focus on girls that must outsmart authority to save their lives and the lives of their family and friends. There may not be futuristic societies and awesome fight scenes in Harriet Jacobs' autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl but the story of a woman who overcomes the odds to save her family is similar. Under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs details her life as a woman enslaved at the height of the abolitionist movement.
The book begins with Linda describing her happy early childhood with her brother and parents. She was made to feel like a person, rather than a piece of property. After her mother died, Linda was sent to live with her mother's mistress, who treated her kindly and took care of her. Shortly afterwards, her mistress also died, and left Linda to her niece, who was still a child as well. The niece's father, Dr. Flint, was cruel to Linda and made sexual advances toward her when she got older. She pursued a relationship with Mr. Sands, a neighboring plantation owner, to save herself from Dr. Flint's attentions.
While Linda is ashamed of her behavior with Mr. Sands, she feels it is better than having to submit to Dr. Flint. Linda becomes pregnant twice and had two children, Ellen and Benny. Dr. Flint becomes enraged at this, and decides to make Linda, Benny and Ellen field hands for Linda's defying him. When Linda finds out about this, she decides to run away, but she does not want to leave her children, so she goes into hiding at the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha.
Mr. Sands buys their children through a slave trader and sends them to Aunt Martha's to live. Linda is confined to a small space, and becomes permanently disabled from being so cramped, but she can see her children living and playing. She receives news that Mr. Sands, now married and a father with his new wife, has taken Ellen from Aunt Martha's house to Washington, D.C. to take care of his legitimate daughter. Linda, upset that Mr. Sands may never free their children, plans to run north to be truly free and to save her children.
After seven years of hiding from Dr. Flint, she boards a boat and finally escapes. She finds work in New York City with a kind family, the Bruces. She also finds Ellen, who is working for Mr. Sands' cousin. Linda is afraid that Ellen will be taken back South and that she will be unable to save her. Dr. Flint continues to look for Linda and her children, saying that their purchase by Mr. Sands was unlawful, and she runs to Boston, where she is reunited with Benny.
After the death of Mrs. Bruce, Linda goes to England to take care of the Bruces' daughter and experiences a society without racial prejudice. After some time, Linda returns to Boston and sends Ellen to boarding school and Benny to California to live with her brother, William. She spends time taking care of the baby of the new Mrs. Bruce, who is also kind to her.
The Fugitive Slave Act is passed, and it leaves Linda vulnerable to kidnap at the hands of Dr. Flint's daughter, Emily, and her husband, Mr. Dodge, who come to New York looking for Linda after the death of Dr. Flint. Despite Linda's protests at being bought and sold again, Mrs. Bruce pays for her freedom. At the end of the book, Linda still does not have a home of her own, nor is she with her children, but she is free from the horrors of slavery.
Throughout the book, Jacobs makes it clear that she longs for her freedom and the freedom of her children. She writes from the perspective of a female slave, susceptible to different terrors than that of the male former slaves that were writing at the time, who detailed the terrible conditions and harsh physical punishment. Jacobs highlighted the fear of a mother who could lose her children at any moment, as well as the constant fear of being sexually harassed.
Another theme was the idea that slavery was systemic in the United States when Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the legislation that took away the safety net of escaping to the North, Jacobs and her children were endangered yet again and only through the intervention of Mrs. Bruce was Jacobs kept safe.
Jacobs also discussed the idea of feeling like a person rather than a piece of property, something that her parents ingrained in her in early childhood and was strengthened through her time with the Bruce family. In contrast, Aunt Martha considered it her burden in life to be a slave and that she should submit to its rigors. Jacobs defied this logic and sought a better life for herself and her children.
Harriet Jacobs overcame being born into slavery, making a better life for herself and her children, but she had many obstacles to face in order to do so. By writing her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs exposed the institution of slavery and the toll it had taken on her family. She was anxious about criticism for her choices but knew that it was imperative that her voice be heard on the subject.
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