Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Let's just get this out of the way upfront: Linda is unreal. She's smart, determined, courageous, self-assured, and, judging from all the friends she seems to acquire, probably a pretty nice person. This is one admirable lady. And what's incredible is that she actually is real, or at least mostly. Harriet Jacobs was actually born into slavery, lived in a crawlspace for seven years, and escaped to write a harrowing tale of escape and (mostly) triumph.
So let's take a look at how she presents herself.
We learn right away that, slave or no slave, Linda is no pushover. She's smart and savvy, and she's not just going to accept her fate, the way Aunt Martha has seemed to:
I had not lived fourteen years in slavery for nothing. I had felt, seen, and heard enough, to read the characters, and question the motives, of those around me. The war of my life had begun; and though one of God's most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered. (4.10)
Here, even though Linda is telling her brother that he needs to be good and forgiving, she's not feeling particularly charitable herself. She's only fourteen, but she knows about injustice—and she knows that her life's work is going to be fighting it.
And check out the language she uses. She's one of "God's most powerless creatures," a phrase that's tailor-made to wring the hearts of the sentimental white women she hopes will be reading this story. At the same time, she's powerful. This contradiction between Linda-the-victim and Linda-the-victor is going to come up over and over again. Sometimes it's not clear who has the most power: Dr. Flint, who harrasses, abuses, and pursues her—or Linda, who manages to evade him every time.
In fact, when Dr. Flint taunts her by saying that she "was made for use … that [she] was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his" (4.5), Linda seems to take that as a challenge. "Never," she recalls, "had my puny arm felt half so strong" (4.5).
Linda may not have the physical or legal strength to combat Dr. Flint, but she has two things that he doesn't: moral strength, and the strength of her own convictions. She knows that slavery is wrong, and she isn't going to let it corrupt her or break her. In fact, it's just going to make her stronger.
Honest but Corrupted
But even Linda has to admit that she's been corrupted by slavery.
I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges. So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery. It was that system of violence and wrong which now left me no alternative but to enact a falsehood. (32.5)
This is a neat little rhetorical move that makes her narrative even stronger. She admits that she's done some bad things—she's lied, sinned, and deceived. But she's had to. Slavery forced her into these actions, which is why, incidentally, it wholly contradicts the principles of Christianity. By bringing these alleged character flaws to light, Linda strengthens her case to the white women she's addressing: slavery has to be ended, because it prevents people from being good Christians.
It also forces women and children into sin.
For years, my master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood. The influences of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world. I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation. (10.2)
In other words, slavery destroys innocence. It makes women and children unable to remain in that nice little innocence that people wanted to think was their natural state of being. (Although anyone who spends a lot of time around kids might question that.) Basically, Linda is saying, she never had a chance.
Of course, it's hard to see exactly why we're supposed to think Linda is so corrupt. On the contrary, she seems like a decent, hard-working, honest, loving, and caring woman. But the issue of sex and marriage was so central to mid-nineteenth-century society that you could be all those things—right up until the minute you had pre-marital sex. Then it was over. No more honor or purity for you.
So, these passages suggest that Linda is really afraid that people are going to read about her affair with Mr. Sands and write her off as hopelessly corrupt. (It didn't help that a lot of people—mostly slave owners—argued that people of African descent were just naturally more "primitive" and controlled by their desires.) They bolster her reputation by suggesting that she was unwilling corrupted—that her mind was enslaved as much as her body.
The other thing about Linda is that she's got a pretty sharp tongue and she's not afraid to use it. It's hard to express how awesome this is. Remember, she's a black woman. Even free and living in the North, she's about on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to nineteenth-century America. But she just tears into hypocrisy like a dog with a really tasty table scrap. Take, for example, her opinion on religion:
There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south. If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church, no matter if it be the price of blood, he is called religious. If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismiss him, if she is a white woman; but if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd. (13.10)
She's basically saying, as she does elsewhere, that these so-called Christians are nothing but big fat hypocrites, and they're most likely going to get what's coming to them. She speaks with an incredibly assured sense of moral authority—the kind of moral authority, in fact, that might seem better suited to a pastor.
But the thing is, it's not. Linda's suffering, and her endurance under that suffering, has somehow given her the authority to speak out. And it's not just hypocritical white men who get her (metaphorical) lash. She bitterly condemns the black Northern servants who refuse to serve her:
[T]he colored servants ought to be dissatisfied with themselves, for not having too much self-respect to submit to such treatment; that there was no difference in the price of board for colored and white servants, and there was no justification for difference of treatment. (35.7)
What this passage also suggests is that Linda is working hard to emphasize not only that women need to work together, but that black people need to work together. It's no good internalizing the corrupt social structures of the white man's world. She becomes a spokesperson for a new kind of world, one in which people can work together instead of tearing each other apart.
Home, Sweet Home
All Linda wants is to bring people together. The overarching goal of her life, and her narrative, is to keep her family safe. She says as much at the end, mourning that she does not "sit with [her] children in a home of [her] own" (41).
And so it's no surprise that she uses her narrative to do the same thing, but on a much bigger scale. She wants to rally white women by convincing them that their shared female-ness is way more important than anything like color, and she'd also like to convince black people that their shared experience of suffering binds them together. So, when she's finally free, she chooses to remember rather than forget, narrating a damning account of slavery as a tribute to her “sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered” (5.3).
As you can tell, Linda has a powerful tool at her service: a pretty impressive way with words.
Sure, at times Linda can be a frustrating narrator. The networks of friends and families are incredibly confusing; the timeline doesn't always seem to make sense; and it's never clear who, exactly, is a slave, and who isn't. (More on that in "Setting," by the way.)
But when Linda turns on the rhetoric, she really turns it on:
Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. (10.6)
Come on. If you were a white woman reading this in a little village in upstate New York, wouldn't you be reaching for a hankie? This is a seriously emotional appeal, and the style is pretty spectacular. Linda sounds just like a well-educated free woman—someone who's a lot like the women she hopes are reading this.
Or this passage:
How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (5.6)
This poetic, almost Biblical language ("the cup … whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink") elevates the ugly, sordid business of slavery. Educated Northern white women may have felt sorry for field hands in the abstract, but men like Linda's acquaintance Luke who has been tortured into ignorance and brutality were probably not too inspiring in person.
But not Linda. Linda is someone you can feel good about helping—maybe because she's already helped herself so much. What was the real Harriet Jacobs like? Well, we probably can't know for sure from this text, because Linda is so clearly carefully constructed to appeal to white female sensibilities. She's the perfect hero: Biblical in her fortitude, modern in her ambition, and with just enough spice to keep things interesting.Timeline