Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Where It All Goes Down
Edenton, North Carolina in the 1800s / the Northern Free States in the 1800s
The first two-thirds of the novel take place in Edenton, North Carolina, the town where Harriet Jacobs was actually born and raised.
We don't learn very much about Edenton. Linda doesn't describe it, but we get the sense that it's a small town with only one or two main streets. From her hiding space above her grandmother's shed, Linda seems to be able to keep a good eye on what's happening.
It's also a tight-knit town, and the black and white communities seem closer than you'd expect. Linda says that "many people" in the neighborhood wanted to buy crackers from her grandmother, and all the white people respected her so much that no one would buy her when Dr. Flint put her up for sale (1). And, before Mrs. Flint gets jealous about her husband's interest in Linda, "there had been a time," Linda says, "when Dr. Flint's wife came to take tea with us, and when her children were also sent to have a feast of 'Aunt Marthy's' nice cooking" (16).
One of the weirdest things for us reading this narrative is that the picture of slavery it draws—while obviously awful—isn't exactly what we're used to hearing. We don't really meet any slave hands; nobody we know is whipped (although there's definitely physical abuse); and none of the main characters are sold away. Dr. Flint, presumably, could have used force and raped Linda whenever he wanted, but instead he seems to think that he needs to win her consent.
Sure, it's obviously not really consent, since, you know, he owns her. But Linda, her children, and most of her extended family seem to exist in this odd state where they're enslaved but have some surprising freedoms. Like, after Linda is pregnant and has her first child, she stops living with Dr. Flint, even though she's still his slave.
One thing to think about is that North Carolina didn’t play a huge role in the early slave trade. The numerous little islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks were risky for ships, so slave traders preferred to land in ports either to the north or the south of North Carolina. North Carolina also lacked the huge plantations of the Deep South.
This narrative helps us remember that there were lots of different kinds of slavery. In a way, it's an answer to people who said—and this was something that people actually did say—that slaves were better off than the poor in other countries. Well, Linda goes to England and tells us straight out that they're not. She says, "I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand fold better off than the most pampered American slave" (37).
And from some perspective, Linda is a pampered slave. She gets to stay with her family; she's never raped or whipped; she wins respect and even affection from many of the white people in her town. But Incidents reminds us that, no matter how nice this setting seems in comparison to, say, a rice plantation in Georgia or a cotton plantation in Alabama, Linda is still a slave.
The Free States
Just as the white and black communities are more intertwined than you might expect, the Northern and Southern states have a close relationship. And this close relationship makes the North just as culpable for slavery as the South.
Sure, at first Linda is blown away by how awesome Northern city life is. Her first morning in Philadelphia is a revelation:
At daylight, I heard women crying fresh fish, berries, radishes, and various other things. All this was new to me. I dressed myself at an early hour, and sat at the window to watch that unknown tide of life. Philadelphia seemed to be a wonderfully great place. (31)
But Linda quickly figures out that the North isn't quite the promised land it was supposed to be. When her son, arriving in Boston, says, "I 'spose free boys can get along here at the north as well as white boys" (34), she doesn't have the heart to tell him about a little thing called Jim Crow. The North might oppose slavery, but they sure didn't oppose racial stereotypes.
The other problem, Linda suggests, is that there just isn't enough difference between North and South. Northerners marry Southerners; Southerners vacation in the North. She's constantly afraid that someone from the South is going to see her and recognize her as a fugitive slave, and it gets worse when Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law.
Look, we're not saying that the North isn't better. Obviously, it is. Linda finds work, friends, and freedom. But Incidents seems to be saying that, as long as the North is still part of the same country, it's just as much to blame.