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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

Race Theme

The world was pretty simple in pre-Civil War America: whites were civilized, Christian, and innately moral; blacks were primitive, amoral, and savage. Not so fast, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl says. Actually, it's the other way around. Jacobs's account shows white slaveholders as the truly cruel and primitive ones, dragging everyone else down with them. In fact, the two races are much more entwined than most white people would have wanted to think. In creating black characters that look white, pointing out that many slaves have white ancestors, and showing noble black and base white characters, Jacobs blows a hole in the very idea of racial purity. (Not that many people seemed to care. But at least she was vindicated in the end, right?)

Questions About Race

  1. What ideas about race seem to keep slavery going?
  2. Does Jacobs suggest that there are essential differences between blacks and whites? If so, what are they?
  3. How does the fact that many slaves had a white parent challenge the racial basis of slavery?
  4. What racial issues does Linda face when she moves to New York?
  5. According to Incidents, how essential are conceptions of race to slavery?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Jacobs undermines ideas of racial inferiority throughout Incidents.

Incidents challenges the idea that black women were primitive and amoral by depicting them as pious and principled.

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