If you like slavery, sexual coercion, and bitter injustice, then boy are you going to love Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet Jacobs—or Linda, as she calls herself—has six measly years of happiness before she realizes that her carefree childhood is a big ol' lie: she's a slave, and she's about to embark on decades of abuse.
Some of the tender moments that we hear about?
Are you fired up? Disgusted? Morally outraged?
Good. Harriet Jacobs wants you to be. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl begins when Jacobs is born enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina, and then continues through her escape, her status as a runaway fugitive in the North, and finally her path to freedom when one of her northern white friends buys her in 1852.
But Jacobs's eventful life isn't even what makes the book so remarkable. When she wrote it during the 1850s, the market was hot for novels and narratives about slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebrated Uncle Tom's Cabin and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative had whetted the North's appetite for this kind of story. What's more, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had people all fired up, since it made it illegal for Northerners to assist runaway slaves. So, it's no surprise that Jacobs thought it was a good time to publish her story.
What's remarkable is that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first full-length narrative written by a former female slave in America. It sets itself apart from other narratives by (1) appealing directly to women, and (2) focusing on the particular struggles that girls faced under slavery. Much of the book deals with Linda’s teenage attempts to escape the lascivious clutches of Dr. Flint, who harasses and abuses her in a way that's difficult to read even now.
Jacobs was writing specifically for Northern white women, who were (mostly) really into something called "the cult of true womanhood"—the idea that women's highest role was to be pious, pure, submissive and domestic. (Sounds like a real snooze, if you ask us.)
Slavery, as Jacobs shows, violates all these principles. Female slaves are denied Christian education, are violently separated from their families, and are turned into sexual objects. The wrong isn't so much that they're dehumanized (although, of course they are); it's that they're defeminized.
Incidents wasn't as popular as you might think. Jacobs's account of rape and other sexual abuse was a little too shocking even for the most outspoken abolitionists. It also didn't help that she published the book under a pseudonym, and begged an introduction from a popular American writer named Lydia Maria Childs. A lot of readers quickly decided that the book was just fiction written by Childs.
And then in 1987, critic Jean Fagan Yellin went to the archives. She uncovered personal and published correspondence between Harriet Jacobs and her friends that proved the book was basically autobiographical. It took over a hundred years, but Harriet Jacobs finally got the credit she deserved: not only did she manage to escape slavery, she wrote one of the most important and timeless accounts of its wrongs.
Look, we get it. This is a tough book to take. If you have any shred of sympathy or compassion (and you're Shmoopers, so duh, of course you do), then you're going to find yourself getting pretty worked up about poor Linda Brent and the evil Dr. Flint.
Well, we think it's worth the attack of righteous indignation. (And the insanely confusing web of relationships.)
Slavery might be something ugly that happened a long time ago that we'd all just rather forget, but it's part of the American past. It shaped American culture (and literature) in ways that are visible every day. And at its heart, this is a good old-fashioned American story about hard work and determination—and a supportive network of friends and family—overcoming insane obstacles.
Women like Harriet Jacobs and the abolitionists who take her in were crucial forces in ending slavery, because you can bet that the powerful guys in charge weren't too interested in stopping something that made them so rich.
The thing is, principles only get you so far. It's one thing to know that something is wrong—like, say, human trafficking—but it's hard for a lot of people to get fired up about it until the voices of its victims are heard. And that's what Jacobs's Linda is: the voice of people who have never been able to speak. Talk about grassroots campaigning: this is the definition of building support from the ground up.
If you don't want to log on to Facebook and sign a petition—any petition—after reading Jacobs's account, then we don't know what will.