Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents In The Life of A Slave Girl is perhaps the most heart-rending memoir you’ll ever read. Writing as “Linda Brent” to conceal her identity and that of the people–slave and free, white and black–who assisted and tormented her throughout the period the book covers, Jacobs tells a tale that confirms the misery delivered by that “peculiar institution” and dispels any notions of past and present purveyors of the notion that slaves were content and happy. The book was first published in 1859–pre-civil war–and covers a period that seems to begin in the 1830’s.
Many of the “incidents” are familiar. A cruel and lustful master intent on defiling his young piece of property; a jealous wife who blames the slave for her husband’s iniquity; the arbitrary beatings and selling off of family members even by the kindest of masters. However, Jacobs determination to escape shows a measure of courage and endurance beyond that of anyone I’ve read or heard about. Years of confinement in an attic closet, watching her children through a small hole in a roof, daring not let them know she is there, till she finally is able to chance flight and plot the escape of her supposedly free son and daughter as well. Brent is not content with engineering her own escape. She wants to get her offspring out as well.
What is also missing from most accounts is Jacobs’ life of peril in the so-called “Free States.” Yes, she was a runaway slave, and especially after the fugitive slave act was passed, vulnerable to capture. However, the incidence of segregation and oppression was prevalent even for her free brothers and sisters. the recent Twelve Years As a Slave film certainly demonstrates how the slavers operated in the north, making life perilous for blacks on any street in America anywhere.
There’s been an uptick in pro-slavery sentiment recently. Speculation that blacks are doing so poorly that they were probably better off in servitude. Or statements to the effect that if slavery was so bad, how come no one in the Bible complained about it? Hard to believe. I’d like to think that a short journey through this slim volume would change some of those minds, but of course nothing would untwist such a spirit.