Incidents in the life of a slave girl

By: Harriet Jacobs

Originally published in 1861, Harriet Jacobs’s account of her life as a North Carolina slave was one of many narratives printed to further the abolitionist cause. It was remarkable at the time, however, for bearing rare witness to the female experience of slavery, not only highlighting the threat of sexual exploitation but also appealing directly to female readers (“O, ye happy women”). Its authenticity was definitively established in 1981, yet Jacobs’s story is so dramatic, so vividly illustrative of the unthinkable horrors and trials of slavery – the sickening violence, the waste of potential, the unpredictability of lives lived according to a slave owner’s caprices – that it almost reads as a novel. Relentlessly pursued by her owner, the wicked Dr Flint, Jacobs (writing as Linda Brent) allows another man to father her two children in the hope that he can secure their freedom. Before she can approach that goal, she hides for seven years in a claustrophobic garret, finally heading north to discover a different kind of racism. It might be heavily laced with biblical metaphors, but the force driving the story still rings out down the years: “Slavery is damnable!”

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