Steve McQueen said of the book 12 Years a Slave “For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I’d never known about it.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which I only found out about because Kindle were selling it for free in the wake of McQueen’s film is, I think, another of these books.
Incidents is the autobiographical work of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a woman who was born into slavery. She wrote the book after she had escaped to New York, and after she had gained her freedom. It is a truly extraordinary account of life in slavery, and also about the lengths which slaves at the time went to both to gain their freedom and also to retain their morality and lives.
Jacobs, who gives herself the pseudonym Linda Brent, uses the work largely to appeal to the women of the North, through a sense of sisterhood, to support abolition. She writes
“Slavery is a terrible thing for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”
In pursuit of her goal to enlighten white women of the North to the particular issues of enslaved women, Jacobs is incredibly frank and honest about her experiences. When still a teenager, she was pursued by the father of her mistress (at the time a little girl), who kept trying to isolate her so that he could take advantage of her vulnerable situation. In order to prevent her master, a jealous man, from raping her, she seduced an older, unmarried, white man of her acquaintance, so that she could become pregnant and her mistress’s father would no longer want her. This was, at the time, most certainly not the done thing (to put it mildly) and leads to one of the saddest moments in the book, for me.
Jacobs’ grandmother is described throughout her book as the most wonderful of old ladies. She worked hard her entire life to procure freedom, or at least material comforts, for her children and grandchildren. When Jacobs conceived of her plan, she wrote
I knew that I was the greatest comfort of her old age, and that it was a source of pride to her that I had not degraded myself, like most of the slaves. I wanted to confess to her that I was no longer worthy of her love; but I could not utter the dreaded words.
Indeed, when Jacobs was later forced to confess, due to her pregnancy, her grandmother flew into a rage and attempted to pull her mother’s wedding ring off her finger, claiming she was not as good as her mother.
Jacobs’ account is absolutely fascinating, and well worth reading. It provides a unique perspective on slavery, one which shows not only the hardships of life but also all of the issues inherent with humans being allowed to possess other humans. It not only encompasses Jacobs’ life, but also that of her neighbours and friends – and, interestingly, Jacobs points out the ways in which slave ownership affected the wives of slaveholders negatively, too. Jacobs is a thoroughly interesting writer, and her book is short enough to read on your commute, so long as you don’t mind weeping in front of strangers.