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27 January 2013

Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

"I'm not going to start this right now, because I have to take notes for my assignment so I'll need to get my notebook and pen first, but maybe I'll just glance at the introduction..."

33 Pages into the story, I looked up and realized that I would have to re-read that whole beginning, this time taking notes. This book seriously sucked me in.

It was captivating to read; it was depressing in analysis, in the way that only truth can be.


If we were to identify a singular dominant theme in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, it would be of the sexual exploitation of African American women in the institution of slavery. The length and breadth of the text are streaked through with references, both direct and indirect, to the specific difficulties faced by the women who were slaves. Although the institution of slavery itself creates the framework, the events of her narrative have the sexual exploitation of Harriet Jacobs by her owner, the slaveholder known in the book as Dr. Flint, at their root.

The only period of Harriet’s life that is spared some form of sexual exploitation is her earliest childhood, before she even knows she is to be a slave. It’s a short period, though, and as Harriet learns, the budding of maidenhood is a frightful thing for a slave girl. Harriet speaks eloquently of “the trials of girlhood” (Incidents 26) as she experienced them. She is just fifteen when she becomes aware she is a target of Dr. Flint’s depredations, but by then she already knows what sort of behavior she can expect from a man who is a slaveholder. “Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves... She will become prematurely knowing in evil things.” (Incidents 27) Though Harriet speaks in general terms, it’s clear that she includes herself in this assessment. The reader is made to understand that her experience – the misery she suffered as the result of Dr. Flint’s sexual harassment of her – is common amongst female slaves as they grow into adulthood. The behavior of Dr. Flint and the other slaveholding men in her narrative put the flagrant sexism of the antebellum South on display; they have no concept of the slaves as having human dignity, but nor do they view their own wives as deserving of the dignity expounded as a virtue of monogamy. In reaction, the wives join in the harassment, harboring resentment and jealousy rather than lust, and vent these frustrations on the female slaves who have been subjected to their husbands’ predations. In this way, the slaveholder’s wives are the unwilling accomplices of their husbands, furthering the misery swirling around the slave women’s sexuality.

As Harriet grows to womanhood in this environment, she is still beset by the same hopes and concerns other young women of her age encounter. She briefly entertains the hope that she will be allowed to marry a man of her choice – a choice typically denied and always hazardous for slaves. Nevertheless, Harriet falls in love. She predicts the unhappy ending to this affair; in any outcome, there would be only pain. Even had she married the man – a freeborn colored man – he would have been harmed by his inability to protect her under the law. Instead, she encouraged him to leave because that was the only way she believed he might find happiness. Such was the hold of slavery on the sexuality of African American women in its grip. (Incidents 33-38)

That hold only tightened when the enslaved women became mothers. As chattel, their offspring were no more sacred to slaveholders than the offspring of horses or cows, and motherhood itself brought a new set of fears to supplement the existing ones. First, slave women had little or no choice in who they conceived a child with, or when they did so. Then, their children were the property of their owners, and could be taken at whim. Worse still, if the child were a girl; the mother knew how much more difficult her child’s life would be, just for being female. Harriet describes this with keen articulacy. Though her innate boldness empowers her to choose the father of her children, the choice is made in the context of a scheme to escape Dr. Flint, in favor of necessary expediency, and at the cost of her pride. Harriet is corned by her circumstances, and forced to sacrifice her moral obligation to marry before having sexual intercourse; in this manner, her sexuality is a weapon in her own hands, intended to allow her release from Dr. Flint, but effectively harming her standing instead. (Incidents 47-51)

There is no release from sexual exploitation for Harriet during the life of Dr. Flint. Even in her torturous and extended escape, she is hounded with the knowledge that he obsesses over having her fully in his control, to have her “subject to his will in all things” (Incidents 26). Her existence as a woman is an unpalatable threat to her safety, as long as he holds her as his legal slave.

In Harriet’s case – and likely in so many more cases – her sexuality is threatened, and threatening, from her maidenhood until her release from slavery. For many other African American women in slavery, their release from slavery came only with death. It is a blessing in Harriet’s eyes that she is able to live beyond that time, beyond the soul-rending bonds of slavery which turn her sex and her sexuality against her. For Harriet, sexual exploitation by Dr. Flint is the driving force behind her fears and actions for much of her life. It’s only in the very beginning of her life, and the very end, that she is relatively free from those influences. 

Edition Cited: Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the life of a slave girl (Unabridged). 1861. Reprint. New YorkDover Publications, 2001. Print.


I've decided that, in general, my 'reviews' of non-fiction books will be more "critical analysis" than "review." It's more my thing.

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