Study Guide

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Friendship

By Harriet Jacobs

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I longed for someone to confide in. I would have given the world to have laid my head on my grandmother’s faithful bosom, and told her all my troubles. But Dr. Flint swore that he would kill me, if I was not as silent as the grave. (5.3)

Dr. Flint’s threats terrorize Linda into silence. Friendship is difficult for slaves, because their voices are so often silenced.

One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning. (5.5)

The white friend will receive an education, marry, and start a family, while the black friend will probably be sexually harassed, never marry, and spend her life in servitude. Slavery destroys friendships as well as families.

Peter, the brave, generous friend who had volunteered to run such terrible risks to secure my safety. To this day I remember how his bright face beamed with joy, when he told me he had discovered a safe method for me to escape. Yet that intelligent, enterprising, noble-hearted man was a chattel! Liable, by the laws of a country that calls itself civilized, to be sold with horses and pigs! (30.1)

Here's a shocker: this guy is more civil and friendly than so-called civilized white Americans. The fact that slaves have such loyal friendships really undermines any argument that they are inherently primitive or amoral.

I had heard that the poor slave had many friends in the north. I trusted we should find some of them. (31.1)

The "friends" are abolitionists, who often wanted to hear about fugitives' experiences in slavery. In a way, Linda's whole narrative is an attempt to make friends with as many white woman as possible.

If he was desirous of being my friend, I thought he ought to know how far I was worthy of it. (31.4)

In Linda's model of friendship, friends are honest to one another about their faults—which is maybe one reason she is so honest in her book?

“Place your trust in God, and be governed by good principles, and you will not fail to find friends.” (31.5)

Be good, and you'll have friends. Gee, that sounds a little conditional.

Many questions were asked concerning my experiences, and my escape from slavery; but I observed how careful they all were not to say anything that might wound my feelings. How gratifying this was, can be fully understood only by those who have been accustomed to be treated as if they were not included within the pale of human beings. (31.6)

For the first time in her life, white people are treating Linda with respect. This small act of kindness is profoundly meaningful for a slave-woman who has grown used to being treated like an object.

There are no bonds so strong as those which are formed by suffering together. (33.5)

Suffering is a shortcut to friendship—this, Linda suggests, is why black people need to work together to end slavery and discrimination.

My relatives had been foiled in all their efforts, but God had raised me up a friend among strangers. (41.22)

Friendship is absolutely central to Linda’s ability to escape slavery. An extensive network of friends and acquaintances looked after her and found opportunities for her.

Friend! It is a common word, often lightly used. Like other good and beautiful things, it may be tarnished by careless handling; but when I speak of Mrs. Bruce as a friend, the word is sacred. (41.22)

Mrs. Bruce probably represents many of the women abolitionists who worked alongside slaves. White allies helped slaves hide, attain employment, and emancipate themselves.

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