Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
200th Anniversary Edition Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs Writing as Linda Brent “It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with these gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.” One of the most memorable slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrates the overarching evil and pervasive depravity of the institution of slavery. In great and painful detail, Jacobs describes her life as a Southern slave, the exploitation that haunted her daily life, her abuse by her master, the involvement she sought with another white man in order to escape her master, and her determination to win freedom for herself and her children. From her seven years of hiding in a garret that was three feet high, to her harrowing escape north to a reunion with her children and freedom, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains an outstanding example of one woman’s extraordinary courage in the face of almost unbeatable odds, as well as one of the most significant testimonials in American history.
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Preface by the Author
The foreword by Linda Brent is meant to serve as an apology--not in the "I did something wrong to you, will you forgive me sense?" but in the "You have every reason not to believe what I write because I am a woman and I am black, but believe me anyways regardless of my lack of qualifications." Linda offers reasons for us to read. She also tells us her purpose: to reveal what slavery really is. What does this tell you about the people from her time?
Introduction by the Editor
What does this phrase suggest?
Who was mostly responsible for shielding the main character from feeling like a slave?
Notice the high opinion that Harriet, or "Linda," has of slaveholders. This is early on in her life, and we are given the impression that not all slaveholders were cruel and harsh to their slaves.
You can use the "Define" feature by simply holding down the left-click side of your mouse on any one word in the text. Look up this word, for example. Do you think this term would be considered politically correct today?
Define this word. Which of the following would also be considered a chattel?
We are left wondering whether or not this should be taken literally or figuratively. Did she really cry every day over her grave? Or did she simply mean she was very sad? Either way, we begin to hear the tone of the author that appeals to our sentiments, or feelings. You will notice that the author will try to evoke a sense of empathy from you. This is a common technique in literature in which the author wants to appeal to emotions to persuade the reader to make a change in his or her actions and attitudes.
This metaphor is used to point out the polarizing view of slaves. Some people thought of them as made equal to all other races in the image of God; others thought of them as a lesser form of life, plants or animals.
This autobiography is not just about the life of a slave--it is an argument against slavery. It includes, appropriately, many rhetorical devices. The following video sums up just a few of these. There are many more techniques, but these few will be brought up throughout this story. (This annotation contains a video)
Why was Harriet glad to go to bed?
Although not what a child would want to hear, or even understand, the grandmother explains that Linda's father could have been taken by God to spare him from pain and misery. This idea brings up a common theme in literature--the divine often works in ways we do not understand. Sometimes for our own good even if it does not feel that way.
What is the tone and meaning of this phrase Linda uses here? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
This phrase is similar to one you might have heard in present-day--"being upside-down" on a loan. It means that you owe more than the value of what you have. This creates economic instability for property owners and banks who own those properties.
What does this phrase most likely mean?
Nerves, here, mean the ability to not be bothered by human suffering and pain.
Watch the following video from 12 Years a Slave. Warning: this footage, though not bloody or extremely violent, represents a form of torture that was used by the most cruel of slave owners. Think about why this punishment might have been used, and contrast it with what happens in the book. (This annotation contains a video)
Why is death such a welcomed experience for so many slaves? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
What is the most painful part of many New Year's Day for most slave mothers?
Notice how the author points out the irony of what her grandmother is saying. The grandmother tries to convince the children that God wants them in this enslaved situation; the children think God would want them to be as comfortable as her. A common theme in literature that depicts the life of slaves is that it is difficult for a slave to know what God intends and wills for him or her. Although not historical, think of other famous literary figures, like Odysseus, who struggled with knowing what the divine was doing.
This is a Biblical allusion of a phrase from the New Testament in which Jesus claims that Satan roams around like a lion seeking those whom he will devour.
In what way does Linda structure this part of the narrative in which she helps us learn details about her life?
Public whippings were both humiliating and painful. The image below shows the back of a slave who was whipped. Some slaves suffered much more severe injuries than this. (This annotation contains an image)
The author does not offer her point of view on what she thinks Benjamin should do. What is the most likely reason for that?
Notice how the author italicizes this word. Why do you think she does that?
What does the phrase "mystic clock" most likely mean?
A Northerner belonged to one of the northern states in America. Most people in this region did not believe in the practice of slavery. Slaves who escaped far enough to the North could live in freedom.
How does the grandmother and Phillip's attitude about slavery offer them a form of freedom? Explain your response using evidence from the text.
Watch the following scene from 12 Years a Slave. Notice the tension between the husband and wife. Why do you think this tension exists? (This annotation contains a video)
Dr. Flint is making sexual advances on Linda. This presents what will become one of the central conflicts in this story. Although everything Linda says focuses on the major conflict of slavery, her personal conflict, and one many slave girls faced, was the sexual assault (rape) by their masters.
How does the author more effectively state here that slaves have difficult lives?
What compelling point does the author make at the end of this chapter in order to appeal to the readers of her text?
What does Linda express in this thought?
Notice how Linda is developing the courage to stand up for herself. Although Dr. Flint really has the law behind him, Linda begins to assert herself. Although this is not a coming-of-age tale, this section of the novel does explain how she is becoming a young woman with her own ideals and values.
We would say he cheated on her or was unfaithful. The word perfidy contains the root words "per" which means not and the "fid" which means faith.
This scene might remind you of a horror film in which the stalking killer stands watch over his next victim. This scene is a little more realistic, though, because it actually happened. Why do you think Mrs. Flint would do such a crazy thing like this?
What generalization does Linda attempt to disprove in this section of the text?
Linda highlights another important theme from the perspective of someone who believes in God: It is easier to trust God when something bad happens than it is to accept something bad that is caused by man. God allowing bad is not evil; man doing something bad is.
What common image does Linda most often use to contrast good and evil?
A slave is considered property of his or her master--marrying does not make one free. The Civil Code of Louisiana from 1824 states: ART. 182.—"Slaves cannot marry without the consent of their masters, and their marriages do not produce any of the civil effects which result from such contract." Laws like these were written by each state in the south. Most states had very similar laws. Because slaves were considered property, and not humans, they were given very, if any, civil rights. This is what the Civil Rights Movement (aptly named) was all about. Given blacks the same rights as all other citizens.
What is most ironic about what Dr. Flint is saying to Linda?
Linda is probably quoting a slave law here. She means that if she has children, then they would be the property of Dr. Flint. All her children would be born into slavery.
What central idea of the text is best expressed in the final lines of this chapter?
Define this word. In what ways has Dr. Flint fallen into this category?
What technique does the author use in this sentence to appeal to the reader's reasoning?
Watch the following video on the Fugitive Slave Law. It provides historical background on how and why this law was made. (This annotation contains a video)
Notice the rhetorical device used here. The term Queen is used in two different ways within the same line of reasoning. It is literal in the first sentence, but figurative in the next. What do you think Linda means by "Queen of Justice?"
The master kept his slaves in jail until they looked like they had been starved.
What central idea is Linda attempting to convey by explaining examples of different slave owners?
This comment suggests that almost everyone from the south, especially men, were pressured to accept and practice slavery--even good men. This story of the woman whose slaves were ruined by their new master, contains heavy irony because the slaves had a choice to ensure their freedom but chose not to--their fault was trusting too much in the goodness of men.
Why is it shameful for a white woman to have a child with a slave, but not for a white man to have a child with a slave? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Who do you think is the intended audience of this chapter? Southerners already know what goes on around them. Most, as Linda suggests, do not acknowledge how evil it is. This chapter was written, though, to the northerners who are, too, unaware of how much human cruelty slavery causes. Linda asks northern readers to literally visit the south and see for themselves. How many do you think would do that?
Many slave owners became obsessed with one particular female slave, and they go to extreme lengths to have sexual relations with them. In both this story and the movie 12 Years a Slave, the male plantation owners become maddeningly obsessed with a slave woman. Watch this scene below and ask yourself if this man appears to be acting rationally. (This annotation contains a video)
What took away Linda's self-respect?
This is one of the more profound statements (though there are many) in this story. It highlights many central ideas all at once: slaves looked desperately for anything that made them feel free; love is earned not bought; not all southerners were evil. Although Linda has not told us yet where all this leads to, we are led to believe that, like her other experiences, nothing good comes her way for long. What do you think will happen?
What happened to most babies of slaves who were bred by their masters?
Linda's grandmother believes that Linda could have avoided getting pregnant. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
This is another example of Linda's poetic use of light and darkness to convey an idea. It is a common rhetorical device that she uses. Because it is used so consistently throughout her narrative we can more easily understand the themes and central ideas she is trying to get across. Do you think it's effective to use the same imagery again and again?
What is Linda's most painful experience of having a child?
What emotion is opposite of the sentiment Linda expresses here?
Linda uses an endearing metaphor here to convey the way in which her growing son (the vine) has found a place in her heart (roots).
Nat Turner's rebellion was a significant event in American history. Although it showed southern white slaveholders how powerful slaves could be, the owners held more tightly to the institution of slavery. (This annotation contains a video)
By citing evidence from the text, explain the practice of the muster and what its apparent purpose might be.
Why did the "Captain" seem to dislike Linda so much?
The slaves were amused because of how ironic Mr. Pike's message was. His primary concern was to tell slaves that they should change their behavior. He completely ignored the behavior of the slave masters. This theme was prevalent among slave owners--they saw nothing wrong with their behavior and would make slaves feel bad for not listening to them. Have you ever seen a parent who mistreats their child and then wonders why their child becomes defiant to them? Unnecessary harshness causes animosity between authority figures and their servants.
The story of the Samaritan is found in the New Testament (Luke 10:25-37). It is a story about being kind to those who no one else looks out for. A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. Many people pass him by, but refuse to help him because of where he is from. Finally, a Samaritan sees him and takes him to get medical attention. His kindness stands out because no one else was willing to do what he did. Mr. Pike and the other Christians in Linda's town are like those who left the dying man.
In what way did this minister most positively affect his congregation?
White people who stood up to the institution of slavery were also taking risks. They could be hung by an angry mob or even imprisoned. Although their sufferings do not compare to those of the blacks.
Blacks were forbidden to read because whites were afraid that if they read they would be able to better communicate with each other. Better communication leads to an increased chance for uprising and revolution. Communist nations are hold similar beliefs--that if people are too educated they will be enlightened enough to overthrow the government.
Which of the following do southerners do that is most effective in convincing the northerner who visits that slavery is not so bad?
There is an old Italian saying that goes, "All are not Saints, who go to church." Linda is pointing out a theme that is prevalent throughout history. From Dante's Inferno to Chaucer's Cantebury Tales, religious hypocrisy causes all kinds of cruelties and corruption to mankind. Notice the distinction Linda draws between Christianity and "religion at the south." She believes they are not the same thing. Has she given you enough evidence from her experience to prove the hypocrisy of the church?
Define this word. Which of the following words is an antonym (opposite in meaning) of vituperations?
Linda is referring to the fact that so many slaves were not direct descendants of their black ancestors. Many children were bred from their white masters. Although, most of these slaves considered themselves the children of their mother's husbands--if he was around.
Part I Quiz
Dr. Flint is referring to the father of Linda's husband, her paramour, as he calls him. No matter what, he is holding on very tightly to Linda. His grip on her becomes increasingly stronger as this story unfolds. Is it simply stubbornness or maddening obsession that drives him to keep her?
What does Linda mean in this last phrase? Use evidence from the text (not just this chapter) to support your response.
Notice the way in which Linda begins to change her outlook on life. She realizes the importance of hope in the face of fear and adversity. Earlier in the story Linda does not feel empowered to hope. What or who do you think empowered her to have hope?
What drives Linda to leave Dr. Flint's house?
The tradeoff for not being around Dr. Flint: a more physically abusive and demanding environment. Linda seemed so discouraged by the emotional abuse, though, it's no surprise that she chose anything to feel free from the tyranny of Dr. Flint.
What seems to be an obvious difference between Dr. Flint and his son, Mr. Flint?
Who now owns Linda and her children?
Earlier, we noticed that Linda was gaining hope. She plans on escaping, which she thinks is the next natural step for someone who is hopeful of being free. Her grandmother's words, however, make her feel otherwise. They make her sorrowful and ashamed for thinking about leaving her children to suffer alone. Do you think the grandmother is right? Why or why not?
What does this phrase mean in regards to Linda's children?
Runaway slave posters were common during these days. Examine the one below and compare it to the one Dr. Flint wrote. (This annotation contains an image)
Why are Linda's friends and relatives so insistent that she return home?
This famous phrase is borrowed from Patrick Henry, an American Revolution hero, who delivered a passionate speech rousing his fellow countrymen to form a military against the King of England. The image below shows Patrick. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Betty speak sternly to Linda's children?
In what ways does this slave trader stand out as a somewhat admirable man? Cite evidence from the text to support your response.
Many psychologists have confirmed that during times of extreme distress or concern, a person may actually see visions or images of people or symbolic objects. Although Linda's children were not actually there, she wanted to see them so badly that they appeared to her. One could also call this a mother's instinct. Sometimes mothers just know things--things that have happened without any clue or indication. There may be no scientific explanation for what Linda experienced, but based on the truthful nature of her other writing we should try to believe this as much as the rest.
Notice the similar imagery that Linda uses to explain the circumstances surrounding her. We can sense a shift in the author's tone--for the first time she feels free, even though she is still technically Dr. Flint's slave. Why does she feel so liberated?
Why does Betty give Linda these specific articles of clothing?
Linda is meant to be hidden in a hole to hide her. Notice that her passage to the north is not easily accomplished. Many slaves went instantly on the run north, but her strategy may be wiser. Most slaveholders would set out north, thinking any slave would eventually go that way. But Linda is actually staying in her neck of the woods, so to speak, to wait for the right moment. She is also completely dependent upon the help of others. Some runaway slaves did not have the same network of friends that Linda had.
Is Linda's life devoid of hardships? She says this, but, as readers, even we may feel that she might be underestimating how easy her life was. She was abused, emotionally and physically, and had family, children, and friends taken from her. One of the reasons she may draw our attention to the hardships of others is to show how amazing her character is. She doesn't want pity just for herself, but for the reader to feel sadness for all slaves. This technique might effectively make the reader aware of the more global injustices of slavery.
A tool used to bore holes. (This annotation contains an image)
Using details from the story, describe Linda's hiding place and why it was such a successful place for her to hide.
A Christmas ritual found most in North Carolina. Men would dress up in costumes and travel from home to home where they would dance and sing and, in turn, usually were rewarded with money.
What most irritates Linda during her Christmas Day?
Although it doesn't say exactly how long, Linda gives us enough information to know she has been up in this crawl space for almost a full year. She is seldom let out. Think about how you would feel being in such a small space for so long.
What central idea does the author remind us of again here?
What rhetorical device does Linda use in this sentence?
The Whig party was the party that competed for many national government seats, including president, for a few decades during the 19th century. The Whig party opposed the Democrats, and sought to protect the economic interests of wealthy individuals and limit the power of the President. The Whig party was ultimately dissolved over the issue of slavery, and the Republican party soon formed after it ended.
What is the main reason Linda has such a hard time getting up the stairs back into her loft?
This newspaper was the most influential and purchased publication during its time. It was known for being anti-Semitic, Democratic, and in favor of slavery. The sentiments expressed by its writers were often very biased.
Where is Linda's grandmother referring to?
In what ways has Linda most changed from her stay in this cramped space? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
We are not told an account of every event that happens to Linda while she remains in the loft hiding spot. However, we are told here that she has been in this spot for five years. Think about how difficult it would be to live in a crammed spot for that long. Because Linda is telling her own story, she won't compliment herself or tell us often about her character development. As readers we can, though, make inferences and come to our own conclusions.
Why did William leave his master instead of waiting for his freedom?
Speculators, also known as slavers, purchased runaway slaves from slaveholders. They hunted the fugitive slaves down and resold them for a profit.
What is the greatest danger Linda faced in meeting her daughter?
How do we know that Ellen is really with her new family in Brooklyn?
What do Linda and her family rely on as a source of hope as they continue to believe she will be free?
This phrase indicates the importance Aunt Nancy had in her household. The word has Latin origins and comes from the root word facere, which means to do. A factotum is a person, who today, we might call a jack of all trades--someone who does anything and everything very well. Cooking, cleaning, sewing--you name it. Slaves who were like this were highly valued.
What is the greatest pain of a Linda's grandmother as she enters her final days of life?
Linda blames herself partially for the death of her aunt. She believes that concealing her location for so long took a physical and emotional toll on her. She also blames the inherent nature of slavery in which slaves work at an exhausting pace for their owners.
The reader should notice the irony in this statement. Mrs. Flint is being sentimental, but her idea of being nice is really not nice at all.
In what way does this phrase apply to Linda? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Seven years in a small hole sounds incredible. Linda's story as a whole was called into question by many people. It was extremely important that slaves had witnesses and other well-respected individuals to vouch for the authenticity of their stories. This is what Linda refers to here.
Why is Linda so reluctant to finally leave for the north?
Why does Linda most likely "forbear to mention any further particulars"?
Define this word. Which of the following words is a synonym for indefatigable?
This might be an allusion to Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus, who betrayed him to the High Priest of Jerusalem for thirty pieces of silver.
What do Benny's actions tell us about his relationship with his mother?
Part II Quiz
What is not one of Linda's immediate concerns about the captain's boat?
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. The abolitionists named it so because of the abundance of friendly people here who played an important role in dissolving slavery. (This annotation contains an image)
What warning does the Reverend give Linda?
Linda had a mixed bag of expectations of the north, but she probably assumed that in the Free States, people had the same rights and privileges. They did not. They were free from being enslaved, but the institution of racism still prevailed in much of the culture. This train incident is only one disillusioning example.
Based on this statement, what can we infer?
Below is a map of Long Island, a narrow stretch of land that juts out from New York. (This annotation contains an image)
Although Ellen is free, many of the promises that Mr. Sands made, like having her educated, were not fulfilled.
In rhetoric, this is referred to as an apology--an instance in which the author admits to not having the best evidence or argument. It is an appeal to the reader to ask you to overlook this fact. The author knows that you depend on facts and trust, so an apology is made so that you don't question the character and truthfulness of the account.
In what way does Mrs. Bruce most affect Linda?
An oculist is an eye doctor. Today, we call them optometrists.
Does Linda do a satisfactory job supporting this opinion? Provide evidence from the text that supports your response.
What assumption does Dr. Flint have in this letter that most enrages Linda?
Why is Linda afraid to travel in the north?
This referred to the Jim Crow laws, which varied from state to state, but more or less segregated African Americans from whites. The south had Jim Crow laws that were legally punishable if broken; the north upheld them by custom and would extend extreme prejudice and harsh treatment if not followed.
Linda argues that blacks should not have to pay the same amount for room and board, if they are not given the same treatment and amenities. Do you agree with her argument?
Linda is nervous that Mr. Thorne will report her location to Dr. Flint. This is why she is avoiding him.
What characteristic does Ellen demonstrate that best indicates her allegiance to her mother?
One consistent element of this text is that Linda acknowledges all people who show her kindness. Most of them undoubtedly read her story. It is a nice way to give a shout-out to someone.
In what ways do people of the north accommodate Linda? Use examples from the previous chapters to support your response.
Slavery was abolished at a much faster rate in England than in America. Many think that this was a purely circumstantial cause because Americans depended on blacks for work in the farming economy. But other historians argue that the English customs were already much more civil than those in America. Regardless, Linda had much more freedom in England and was treated with much more respect.
What most impressed Linda about England?
What tone does Linda portray by the way she writes this sentence?
Massachusetts was home to some of the most influential political figures and abolitionists. Linda senses that she feels protected here even under the legal system and these people who would protect her.
What secret was told to Ellen before she left?
This law made it profitable for northerners to capture runaway slaves and sell them back to their southern masters.
The Fugitive Slave law was upheld in the northern states, as well. Although many slaves found their home in the "free north," this new law put them and their children in danger.
Jenny Lind was one of the most popular singers during her time. She sang opera, performed hundreds of concerts in Europe and America, and earned thousands of dollars from her shows. She was nicknamed as the "Swedish Nightingale." (This annotation contains an image)
In what way did the Fugitive Slave law affect Linda and other blacks in the north? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Linda is right. The north was no more a free place than the south. Although slavery was not practiced, it was upheld, which to many is the same thing.
What emotion most affects the morality of many slaves?
Notice how subtly Linda equates slaveholders and snakes. She despises both. This rhetorical technique is used to help the reader see the connection between two objects or things.
What did Mrs. Bruce do to ensure Linda's safety?
The damage done by Dr. Flint was grievous. Linda, admits honestly, that she has a hard time forgiving him. Her grandmother, who has always been a moral example, forgave him. Do you think she ever can?
Why does Mr. Dodge think he has rights to claim Linda?
Which belief does Linda most strongly challenge in this section of her story?
Linda says this as if it sheds light on a blemish (or worse) in the history of America. The north was touted as being a place where slaves were free. Linda did ultimately find her freedom here thanks to a very kind individual. But not all northerners were like this. Slavery was not yet abolished, and she is trying to set the records straight. Her work is important as a historical document because her narrative highlights a misconception that many may have had about the north.
In what ways has Mrs. Bruce (both of them actually) been a true friend to Linda? What did they do that made them worthy of the deeper meaning of this word? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Calling a black person a citizen implies that they were human and at the same level as the white man. Though we know this is obviously true, many southerners and northerners didn't feel this way.
Part III Quiz