The study of literary works of various times can provide valuable insight into the social structure and opinions. Hence, this work aims to study the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs entitled “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.” This work is a unique reflection of what representatives of the black community went through at the end of the nineteenth century. The analysis of this literary work will provide a large amount of information about the author and what society was like during the Civil War.
The Life of Harriet Jacobs
First of all, before discussing an autobiography, it is necessary to find out about its author. Harriet Jacobs is an African-American writer who became famous for being one of the first black women writers who decided to document their experiences of slavery. The work “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” made a splash at the time with its frankness and the number of topics it raised. Moreover, the book presents an entirely different perspective of what slavery was like during the Civil War.
As for the author of the work, she made a rather bold and risky act by deciding to make public what she had to go through. However, it helped spread awareness about all the horrors and hardships of slavery. The most important aspect is that the author did not want to remain a slave forever and did everything to free herself and her family from this. That is why one of the most permanent themes in work is slavery, the relationship with the mother, and the rights of women.
Before proceeding to discuss the main topics of the work under study, it is necessary to consider the life of the woman who wrote it. As already mentioned, Jacobs has been in slavery for quite an extended part of her life. Despite such a depressing fate, she was not ready to put up with it. Moreover, in addition to being forced to work for a rich man, the writer constantly experienced sexual and physical violence in her direction, which was inherent in this phenomenon. This left a strong impression since these cruel and inhuman actions began to occur in Jacobs when she was only twelve years old (Jacobs 5). After many years, the woman made attempts to stop the abuse by sending anonymous letters to the New York Tribune. It is also worth noting that the horrific experience of being subjected to sexual and physical violence in the writer’s book was one of the very first accounts that generated a wave of discontent. This led to the fact that more and more enslaved women began to speak out about similar events that they had experienced.
During her lifetime, Harriet Jacobs wrote many more different works that are of particular importance to African-American literature. In addition, later, she became an active reformer and abolitionist, one of those lucky people who managed to escape the lifelong oppression of slavery. She also gained popularity due to the fact that she was able to become reliable for many other women who were abused by their masters.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
This section of the work will consider the work that gave Harriet Jacobs popularity around the world and singled her out in the list of the most outstanding African-American writers. An autobiography entitled “Incident in the Life of A Slave Girl” was created in 1861 (Abbas 162). Telling about the difficulties faced by slaves in the nineteenth century, the book was long considered to have been written by a white author. It was only after a long time that the public learned that this was not just a heartbreaking story about the life of a slave girl but the author’s autobiography.
As a background, it is worth noting that in the second half of the 19th century, slavery was a rather acute problem that spread with incredible speed throughout the United States of America. However, such a spread caused a large number of debates, primarily about the humanity of subordinating human life to more privileged individuals. Various initiatives have been taken, such as the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) or the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) (Givens 24; Malavasic 120). However, such measures led to even more fragmentation and conflicts among the states and greatly affected the aggravation of the course of the Civil War.
At the same time, against the background of unrest, African-American literature received an impetus for the growth and expansion of its influence. An increasing amount of authentic and fictitious literature was published and sold in bookstores, which influenced the spread of awareness about the problem of neglect of the black population. Therefore, it can be said that all the works released during that tough and conflictual time were also of a political nature since their main goal was to change legislation and expand the rights of African Americans.
The distinctive features of the literature describing the experience of slavery were incredibly graphic and detailed descriptions of hardships and abuse that all black subordinates, from younger to older, had to face. Thus, the authors made an attempt to convey the main idea to the reader by touching on the strongest emotions. All of these features included the work “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which also focused on the issue of self-definition and self-respect. In addition to raising the issues of slavery, Jacobs’ autobiography also addressed other serious topics. Among them were the mother’s role and the children’s removal from her at an early age, which often happened in cases of slavery. Another critical issue can be defined by women’s rights and how they were neglected in those days.
Therefore, the theme of the mother in importance and value in work follows after the problem of slavery. In “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” the writer conveys that in most cases, children were separated from their parents at an early age. This was due to the fact that the masters, in order to obtain financial benefits, sold child slaves or simply deprived mothers of any rights over them. The same thing happened with the main character of the literary work, that is, with Jacobs herself, who never fully experienced the phenomenon of the mother figure in her life. With the help of such a vulnerable and heartbreaking narrative, the author makes an attempt to show the condemnation of slavery. In the same way, already at an older age, the writer conveys in her autobiography how much she was motivated by love for her children and the desire to provide them with a better future.
The book also provides a relatively extensive amount of information about what the society in which the described events took place was like. Consequently, through her observations, her main character, alter ego Jacobs Linda, shows such a critical trend of slavery as the ability to destroy both black and white families. As already mentioned, Arab families were separated with frightening frequency at the whim of their masters. A particularly terrifying moment is the description of how mothers watched with their own eyes as their children were taken away from them, perhaps forever. In addition, the relationship within the family also deteriorated significantly due to the conflict of following the family statutes or decrees and rules of the slaveholder. For example, the main character’s father scolds her older brother for not obeying the prominent family member but the master. At the same time, considering the actual circumstances, this could not happen due to the fact that only masters had authority when they were enslaved, and their parents were utterly deprived of it.
Moreover, the happiness of white families is disrupted by the male habit of fathering illegitimate children with enslaved women. Jacobs describes the consternation of wives who see “children of every shade of complexion” and know they are the siblings of her own babies. Evaluating the disastrous in her own household, Linda concludes that Mrs. Flint would have been much happier without slavery, because she could live without fear of her husband’s flagrant infidelity.
Another aspect that also interfered with the family relationships of white and black families was sexual violence. A frightening number of slave owners raped female slaves, who then gave birth to illegitimate children. In the book, Jacobs masterfully describes the confusion and awkwardness when women see the children of slaves and realize that they may be brothers or sisters of their own children. This has brought multiple conflicts within families and devastating and severe traumas for enslaved women. Regarding the relationship between mothers and children, the author also emphasizes the need for mothers to retain full rights to take care of their own children. Henceforth, the birth of children by the main character of her book makes Linda even more vulnerable, and she enslaves her more and more. This is caused by the fear of uncertainty for the future of the children and the woman herself, who does not wish them the same studies that once fell to her.
The last problem that this scientific paper considers is the rights and freedoms of women in the work of Jacobs. So, the main character of the author’s autobiography has a constant and strong desire to avoid the fate of slavery. Moreover, the writer shows how the rights of black women are pinched not only by their masters but also by their wives. So, many white women were characterized by a dismissive and sometimes cruel attitude towards African-Americans. Often the reasons for these actions were jealousy or concern that the husbands of white women might be attracted to slaves.
The author shows what contribution the negative behavior of the wives of the masters made to the development of the equation of the rights of all female representatives. Instead of being compassionate and helping sexually and physically raped slaves, white women, on the contrary, often humiliated them and made them worse. In addition, the author also emphasized these conditions that not only African-American women had powerlessness, but also the wives of slave owners, who also had no rights and no voice in front of their husbands.
Jacobs gives many accounts of the particular abuse doled out to slaves by white mistresses, often in retaliation for their husbands’ infidelities. In response to the widespread practice of male slave owners fathering children with their slaves, most wives don’t confront their husbands – over whom they have no real control – but take out their anger on the slaves, who are blameless. Jacobs describes instances in which white women encourage their husbands to sell off illegitimate children, thus punishing slave mothers for their own abuse.
Nevertheless, the author also shows in his autobiography that there were cases when black and white women cooperated to achieve a common benefit. However, these were sporadic cases and often manifested themselves in those states where people proclaimed the abolition of slavery. In these places, women understood the weight of their voice and could resist their husbands, putting them right in front of the problematic situation in their families.
In conclusion, this work was devoted to the study of Harriet Jacobs and her work. Of particular importance in the writer’s career was an autobiographical work entitled “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The book was a breakthrough in African-American literature, as it showed in every detail the terrible experience that slaves experienced during the Civil War in the United States of America. The special significance of the literary work is also sold because its author is a woman who was not afraid to fight for her rights and tell her story to the whole world. In addition to the topic of slavery, the writer also raises such topics as family relations and women’s rights and freedoms in society. Therefore, the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs provides a unique and invaluable insight into the lives of enslaved people and what difficulties they had to go through. The dissemination of such literature can contribute to disseminating awareness about the importance of equality in society.
Abbas, Abbas. “The Reality Of American Nation Slavery In The Novel Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl By Harriet Ann Jacobs.” Jurnal Ilmu Budaya, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020, pp. 116-126.
Givens, Jarvis R. “Literate Slave, Fugitive Slave: A Note on the Ethical Dilemma of Black Education.” The Future is Black, 2020, pp. 22-30.
Jacobs, Harriet. The Life of a Slave Girl. BookRix, 2019.
Malavasic, Alice Elizabeth. The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act. UNC Press Books, 2017.