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Publisher’s blurb: “The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.
Written and published in 1861 after Jacobs’ harrowing escape from a vile and predatory master, the memoir delivers a powerful and unflinching portrayal of the abuses and hypocrisy of the master-slave relationship. Jacobs writes frankly of the horrors she suffered as a slave, her eventual escape after several unsuccessful attempts, and her seven years in self-imposed exile, hiding in a coffin-like “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch.
A rare firsthand account of a courageous woman’s determination and endurance, this inspirational story also represents a valuable historical record of the continuing battle for freedom and the preservation of family.” (Dover Publications ©2001, blurb taken from Amazon)
Oof. What do I even say about this book?
It’s a hard read, but that’s no surprise. As I was reading, I kept wanting to use the word surreal, but therein lies the terrifying part: everything discussed in the book is real, happened to real people, and frankly, wasn’t that long ago. If you think about all of human history, 150 years isn’t that far back.
Yet again, let’s talk about the importance and power of #ownvoices storytelling. There is absolutely no way that this story, this perspective, would be well-explained from someone who didn’t live it. A woman’s experience of slavery was entirely different than a man’s. Both narratives are important, but we have so few female accounts to talk about. Jacobs’ own choices and decision making play a large role in the outcome of her story, which isn’t something we get to see very often when reading about slavery.
Style-wise, ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ is pretty straightforward. It’s written like a story in 41 essays, not like a history textbook. It’s easy to understand and you never get bogged down with dates or outside references.
I’m not sure this is necessary, but I will throw a caution out there for potential readers: There is obviously a lot of derogatory language and violence detailed throughout the book. Jacobs doesn’t delve too deeply into her own sexual abuse and harassment, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. It’s difficult to read, yes, but that is precisely why it’s important. We all need to reflect back and acknowledge how horrible this time period of our history was.
We cannot gloss over the past. We cannot forget what happens when human beings determine value based on skin tone. We cannot pretend that racism is over.
I wrote a post last month called Civil Rights in 2017, where I talked about the ways in which people of color are still oppressed, and still treated as second-class citizens (or worse). In addition to the points I made there, I would like to direct your attention to this article, which talks about sexual violence and race. The State of African American Women in the U.S. was also an interesting read; it looks at heath care and economic statistics specifically for this demographic.
This book is an important addition to black history, but also to women’s history. Those two things are not separate issues. Women’s issues are racial issues and vice versa.
This isn’t a happy read, but I recommend it anyway. History isn’t always happy. Reality isn’t always happy, but it’s important to know where we’ve come from.