Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself

by Harriet A. Jacobs

Paperback, 1987




Harvard University Press (1987), Edition: 3rd, 368 pages


Biography & Autobiography. African American Nonfiction. Nonfiction. HTML: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the immensely powerful autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, who wrote under a pen name. A feminist work, she uses her experiences to state and restate her belief that though all unhappiness sprung from being a slave, she had to endure worse, being also a woman. Her experiences show that the only refuge and relief to be found were in other women, and also that women were less able to attempt freedom when that would mean leaving their children behind. Her autobiography is the account of her struggle to achieve that freedom and respect and redefine herself. Her life is a testament to her grandmother's credo: "He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave.".… (more)


½ (582 ratings; 4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member London_StJ
I first read Harriet Jacobs' charged narrative as part of an undergraduate course on African American literature. Reading Jacobs' account alongside that of Frederick Douglas was a wonderful experience, and happened to produce a strong bias on my part; after discussing the publication (and editing)
Show More
history of Douglas' works I came to appreciate Jacobs' novel even more. Her account is unique at the time of its publication because it tells the story of a female slave from her own point of view - with no author or editor in the way. Jacobs, educated in her own right and therefore completely capable of producing such an eloquent text, is an extremely effective rhetor. She clearly identifies her audience - white Northern women who may be sympathetic to the abolitionist movements - and uses rhetorical techniques to produce the maximum impact. Jacobs' narrative focuses on many prominent issues, most notably the desire of the slave to remain morally pure and righteous (in a Christian sense) despite the sinful and heathenish demands of their masters, and the heartbreaking plight of the slave mother who must face the uncertainty and sorrow that comes with every auction and sale.

I was very pleased to have the chance to introduce Jacobs' story to my AP English student this semester, and was equally pleased with the charged responses that the text inspired. Jacobs' story - and skillful writing - is always sure to make an impact.
Show Less
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
I enjoy reading 19th century memoirs, so I expected to like Harriet Jacobs' memoir of her life in slavery and her eventual escape. I did like it, but not as much as I expected. Jacobs wrote under a pseudonym and changed names of places and people. This decision is understandable since the book was
Show More
published before slavery was abolished, but it made it feel a bit like fiction to me. While the heavy appeal to readers' emotions is typical of the book's era, 21st century readers have been conditioned by decades of political spin and Madison Avenue advertising to be skeptical of this sort of approach. I have a recent biography of Harriet Jacobs by Jean Fagan Yellin in my TBR stash. Since my interest has been aroused, I hope to work Yellin's biography into next month's reading list. It should have more details and documentation than Jacobs was comfortable putting in her memoir, and I hope it will give me a greater sense of her life and legacy.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
One could say that the writing style of [Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl] were too genteel for the topic of escape from the evils of slavery, but women in the 19th century valued gentility, [[Harriet Jacobs]] perhaps more than most because she felt her readers might find some of her life
Show More
choices indicative of low morals rather than survival tactics. I was surprised that the attempted "wooing" of "Linda" seemed so much like the wooing referred to in [Wench], though I imagine [[Perkins-Valdez]] is very familiar with this work. I hadn't thought that wooing had any part in master-slave relations, but rather that such relationships stemmed from more straight forward rape. However, I'm sure it eased the conscience of some slave owners to think that their paramours had willingly succumbed to their charms.

Spiritual leaders like Dinesh D'Souza and historians like Thaddeus Russell have have parroted the Confederate belief that idealizing the rebellion against slavery is a source of disability among some African Americans. In his book The End of Racism (D'Souza) asserted that the "American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well." Perhaps D'Souza has a very limited imagination if he cannot think of the ways property can be misused and the implications of this misuse when the property is a human being. Russell says that slave families were of course split up, but so were non slave families because children had to be sent from home to work. Jacobs, having heard that argument even in the 19th century describes just such English families that have to separate to find work but who are able to communicate with each other, thus maintain the family. Slave families, once broken up, often didn't even know where the various members had been sent.

The most impressive part of the book to me was the account of the slave's life once she had escaped to the North. Just as all romances used to end with marriage, "and they lived happily ever after", accounts of escape from slavery usually end with the joy of escape. However, in the US the slave couldn't relax in her new found freedom because she was at all times subject to capture and return even from the "enlightened" cities of Boston and New York. The description Jacobs gives of the way she raised her children, sending one to boarding school and the other off with a brother reminded me of the Filipino people I have known and the fluid child rearing methods immigrants have always used to try to guarantee the futures of their children.

I recommend this book to anyone wanting to get an accurate picture of slavery, and of the treatment of women.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
While Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was an interesting and education read, I found myself cringing many times over the treatment these people endured. I found myself having to put the book down after each chapter and then practically having to force myself to pick it up again. What this one
Show More
woman went through to attain freedom for herself and her children is a testament to her spirit and endurance.

I have heard that this book is not the actual life of one person, but rather a collection of stories put together and released as an abolitionist document. I say either way these atrocities did occur and it’s important to bring these slave stories to light.

While the book at times is over-written in the language of the day, it still manages to convey the corruption and dehumanization of slavery. Putting this book into our hands makes it impossible to turn away from the history of persecution and ill-treatment that slavery brought to so many. So, not a book to enjoy, but certainly a book to educate and inform.
Show Less
LibraryThing member autumnesf
Should be required reading for our jr. high students to get a look at slavery and how it destroyed people.
LibraryThing member gmillar
I gave this book five stars for a couple of reasons: it is five star hellish, it is five star storytelling. There are parts of her life story that I won't soon forget.
LibraryThing member Duranfan
I'm sorry that I had never heard of this book before now. And I'm more surprised that this book isn't required reading in high schools and colleges. It should. An amazing personal look into the life black women had to endure during the era of slavery. Very touching story.
LibraryThing member Kristymk18
Jacob's autobiography shows readers the horrible and devastating institute of slavery. You can feel her righteous anger, her anguish, and her powerful will through her words. She recounts her time as a slave and as a runaway - where conditions were grim (she was confined to a 9x7x3 space while in
Show More
hiding for 7 years), but according to her, preferable to the alternative of being a slave.

The despicable acts of the slaveholders is coupled with the blind eye of the North (for even though they were "free" states, their lack of humanity toward blacks is evident). Jacob's descriptions of such events are heartbreaking and horrifying and her pursuit of freedom from this (for herself and her children) is admirable and inspiring.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RachelWeaver
This is one of the most important documents of American literature. There would be no Uncle Tom's Cabin without it. There would be no Beloved without it. It's a terrifying life story of indignities and survival, an American Anne Frank.
LibraryThing member krazy4katz
A book of such pain, but such dignity, and very accessible. Her story feels unique, but I have to remind myself that it represents the life of so many people enslaved at that time. And she was actually luckier than many others! Hearing the story of slavery from a woman also gave me a unique
Show More
perspective. This book should be read over and over to remind ourselves what must never happen again anywhere in the world. Of course I knew "in my mind" what happened during slavery, but it is quite different to read a first-hand account. For me, it ranks with Nelson Mandela's autobiography in its ability to sensitize me to the dehumanizing conditions of slavery and racism. Absolutely a worthwhile read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member librarycatnip
I really enjoyed this book, it was very accessible and expected a reasonable amount of intelligence from readers. :-) Jacobs has a wry sense of humor in the face of a blatant and systemic injustice.
LibraryThing member angela.vaughn
This book moved me. The true life story of this womans fight for freedom, for not only herself and her children was more than she expected even in the Free North. I love that at although she tells her story, she is very polite about the whole thing and she never reveals too much, as a lady would
Show More
never do that. It just goes to show how the times have changes.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is an account of the life of a girl born in slavery in 1813 in Edenton, N.C. When she was a teenager she was sexually molested by her master, from whom she hid in a garret for nearly seven years before escaping to the North. She had had two children by Samuel Sawyer, who went on to serve one
Show More
term in he U.S. House from 1837 to 1839 and did little for the children she bore him. The author suffered from racism even in the North. The book is not well-written and I found myself glad to get to the end of the book, even though one cannot help but empathize with the author and her dire, almost ubelievable travail.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LivelyLady
This was published in 1861, just before or at the start of the CIVIL WAR. The memoirs of a black woman and her growing up and adulthood in slavery. At the end she was in the north, having her freedom bought by the woman for whom she worked. And she was reunited with her children at that time. Very
Show More
good, interesting. Amazing that even in the north, there was class discrimination. The only reason I did not give it a "5" was that as it was written in the way of the day, I found it difficult to read. But that was also part of the uniqueness.
Show Less
LibraryThing member KayPrime
It is my understanding that slave narratives were written to aid the abolitionist in persuading white northerners to join the movement by illustrating the horrors of slavery. Considering the era and her audience, I realize it was necessary for Jacobs' language to bring attention to such vulgarities
Show More
without actually being vulgar. Personally, I felt her portrayal was too tame when it came to describing the 'brutality and injustice inflicted on female slaves that trampled on their humanity and their gender all at once.' Still, her pain and anguish are not wasted on me:

"I admit that the black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South..." or here,

"Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing his voice,' just to highlight a few.

Coming out on the other end of this narrative, I have a greater appreciation for my own basic HUMAN liberties that I take for granted every day. Jacobs' story moves me as a woman, angers me as an African, and shames me as an American to know that this is part of my history.
Show Less
LibraryThing member bjmitch
This book is a free book available for Kindle and as there are so few memoirs of slaves written by themselves, I couldn't resist. You most likely know it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write and those who did learn usually kept that fact secret. This slave, however, as a house slave had
Show More
access to reading materials and read especially newspapers and the Bible all her life to give pertinent news to other slaves.

Her name was Linda. She was owned by the very young daughter of a doctor, but the doctor treated her as his own. She resisted his attempts to seduce her and managed to evade his direct orders to make her body available to him at will. She was quite valuable since she had light skin (the daughter of mullatoes) so he didn't dare lessen her value in any way.

Eventually she was seduced by a white man who she trusted; he had convinced her he would buy her and set her free. She had two children by him which of course infuriated Dr. Flint, her owner's father. When the children are still quite young, she finds herself in such danger that she must leave her children with her aged grandmother in order to escape. She spends many years hidden in an attic of a shed where she is unable to stand up before she is able to escape to the North.

Linda's story is one of courage and heartbreak, a story of almost unendurable physical and mental abuse and hardship, but throughout a story of a woman's pride despite being a slave and her devotion to her family, particularly her children. It is also the story of the courage of people willing to help her and her children. I found it as page-turning as a mystery novel and even more frightening since it was a true story.

I recommend this free book to Kindle owners.
Show Less
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Powerful autobiography of Harriet Jacobs; this story of her life growing up as a slave and her eventual escape into the North is enhanced by the matter-of-fact manner which she uses to describe some terrible conditions. By matter-of-fact, I don't mean that she is accepting of these conditions - she
Show More
speaks passionately about the injustices, cruelty, and hypocrisy she sees both in the south and the north - but she doesn't dramatize when she is describing them. I found this factual tone to make the story more compelling, so much so that I couldn't stop once I started.

To have written and published this in 1861 shows what tremendous strength of character Harriet Jacobs had, especially as she includes some fairly scathing commentary on the racism she and her children faced in the "free states" of New York and Massachusetts. I can see how incendiary this book must have been when it came out! Even as an emancipated woman living in a free state, it must have been dangerous for her (even using a pseudonym).
Show Less
LibraryThing member ilex011
Deeply moving and raw. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I was assigned this book in college and its made a powerful impression, especially since it was the first slave narrative I had read. I would later read Frederick Douglass' My Bondage and My Freedom, and especially after reading that, the man is one of my greatest heroes, and that's one powerful
Show More
book. Jacobs is certainly far less well known--I'd never heard of her before I was assigned the book--but this book packs as much as a wallop--particularly because as a woman, Jacobs was subject to an abuse that while I'm sure men weren't completely free of, was certainly not spoken of that I know about and I'm sure was much less common--sexual harassment and rape. Jacobs hit hard on a theme that I'd later see when I came to read to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: That one of the greatest crimes of slavery is that it robbed slaves of moral agency. Quite simply a slave could not say no. To anything. And Jacobs in her experiences and observations is able to underline that in ways no dry objective history could.
Show Less
LibraryThing member N.T.Embe
For the most part, stories like this are not ones that I read willingly. I am not someone who follows after those persecuted and who have gone through many hardships that are based on reality because, like everyone else, I have enough hardships and things in my own life that I have to deal with. I
Show More
read usually to get away from reality, and to expand the creativity and horizons of my imaginative mind. Nevertheless, I will give credit where credit is due, and although I did not love this story--for how could anyone love a tale of such great wrongs and horrors?--I respect it and truly was able to find my way through it without having the usual obscenities and injustices of slavery shoved down my throat.

I speak harshly, and many people would resent me for that. I don't deny that many people still are vulgar enough not to take matters like this seriously, and there is no way that I wouldn't take the cruelties of this to heart and advocate every right of every person ever enslaved in this country to shout their experiences and rights, and rub them in the faces of those who would ignore them. My own personal feelings are biased because of my education, where too often I had tales like this shoved daily down my throat in every literature class when all I wanted to do was to read something that would cater to my child-like imagination. I almost never received it.

Harriet Jacobs account of her own life experiences are a blessing to people like us, who never had to experience what she went through, and yet could face every single ounce of the horrors and injuries that she bore as she strove for her freedom, for her children's freedom, and for the safety of those around her who helped where help was least expected. It is an account that gives insight, that rumbles onwards with defiant and knowledgeable experience, and shows us all the things that a woman must go through when she is faced with the circumstance of slavery. And while fiendish, while cruel, while vile and disgusting--everything that Jacobs gave us was an account that awoke in us the ability to acknowledge what she went through, without being turned away by the grotesque descriptions of things already too well known. At least, in my part, too often thrown in my face.

I appreciated Jacobs for that, for writing something that for once did not try to force its way into my head and fill my mind with things that contaminated it more than educated it. Should the truth be concealed from us? Absolutely not! Can the truth be harsh? Of course it can. But thank the blessed Lord that someone had the decency to tell us her story without blatantly describing the--*Shudders*--the WORDS that planted slimy, obscene thoughts in a young girl's skull, or the way she was TOUCHED... *Turns away her face in disgust and horror* PLEASE. Do I understand that that's what some women went through in slavery and that it was horrible? YES. I DO. But God help me! All the absolutely base things that were written and described that I NEVER wanted to have to entertain! A child is smart enough to know when and what horrors lurk in words even when those acts of vileness are not described and only hinted at. Jacobs either could not bear to recount those things to us out of her own unwillingness to relive them in such graphic detail, or she was kind enough to spare us the horror of what she went through in order to give us the greater message: that she STROVE for her freedom, because she knew it was a God-given right to her and her children, and by keeping faith, by doing her very best and being an honorable, determined, persevering woman, she achieved something that should have been hers from the very beginning. It is a success story unlike so many others, and one well worth listening to.

For that discretion alone, and her magnificent character, I would give the book the highest rating, but I cannot lie and say it was amazing when I felt nothing of that feeling evoked in me throughout its pages. Yet, in comparison to the other books I have read on the subject, this one far outdoes the others. Some would say blasphemy! That I'm a coward and a poltroon, who cannot handle the truth. I tell them if they want to eat up all those disgusting details of others' sufferings, then go right ahead! I honor and respect the woman with enough discretion to CARE about what she reveals, and who still finds a way to leave us with the unblemished truths to think about while saving us from the tortures of her own experiences. It doesn't undermine them. Not one bit. It only heightens my respect and admiration for her, and though this has been written so long, long ago, I wish I could go up to her and shake her hand, with tears in my eyes. Because for this woman, no words are enough to express the joy I feel for her, and what she finally was able to receive in this life.

It's a good book. Is it fantastic? Like I said, something like this cannot be fantastic, as far as I'm concerned. It was, however, something I felt was worth the reading. On that note, if you would enjoy something written upon the subject matters it touches--slavery, oppressed women, and the like--then it's recommended. Pick it up. It's good for a read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Elizabeth Klett is absolutely wonderful narrating this autobiography. I couldn't stop listening once I had started!

Harriet Jacobs tells her story in such a straightforward manner as to compell belief, and while the abuses she describes are now well-known, it must have taken a tremendous amount of
Show More
strength of mind to write and publish this in 1861. She not only documents the terrible degradations of slavery, but also the racism she and her children are forced to undergo in the "free states" of New York and Massachusetts.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sgerbic
Reviewed March 2007 Originally purchased for History 100W a writing class, I read this book as it was about slavery pre-civil war. Not sure what to say about this book, it is a quick read and it really does seem unbelievable. Regardless of the appendix by two persons who claim the story is true it
Show More
is very hard to believe that this woman shut herself in a small attic, unable to stand for 7 years. Her children, family and friends were just too perfect, risking death to help her. Yet all around her other slaves were dying for little cause. I also didn’t understand how she was able to “run into” so many acquaintances and friends from the South when she was in Boston, New York and Philadelphia? Through the book is truly unbelievable it was still written during the 1850’s and seems to tell the story of slavery. I’m glad I added this book to my library. P.S. I looked up Jacobs on-line and it appears she is a source of historical resource. There is a website with pictures of the doctor and his home. Also a drawing of her grandmother’s home with the crawlspace. Yale University is sponsoring a paper project and other universities offer her later writings for research. so I guess there must be more to her than I thought. 7-2007
Show Less
LibraryThing member raselyem7
I really enjoyed this book, it was very accessible and expected a reasonable amount of intelligence from readers. :-) Jacobs has a wry sense of humor in the face of a blatant and systemic injustice.
LibraryThing member Andrewturner
This was one of the more well written books that I have ever read. Incidents in the life of a slave girl followed the story of "Linda Brent", which is actually a fake name. The books was written as a slavery narrative of the authors life. I feel the overall message of the book is about survival.
Show More
The story brings to light how power and abuse can ruin someone's life. I also feel that the reasoning behind this book being written was to teach the reader how the life of a female slave differed from the life of a male slave. Although both were very cruel and horrid, Harriet Jacobs allowed the reader to see into the mind and psyche of a female slave.

The characters are very well developed in this book. The author used characters from her own experiences as a slave, although she did change the names of some of the characters to protect their identities. The main character, Linda Brent, was actually a pseudonym for Harriet Jacobs. The story follows her life and her experiences as a slave. As a reader, you are able to gain so much insight into the mindset of a female slave. Her relationship with Dr. Flint (her new master once her mother and the mothers mistress had passed away) was a very disturbing relationship. He attempted to create a sexual relationship with Linda. The reader bears witness to the mindset of Dr. Flint, who would rather use tricks and cunningness to lure Linda into a sexual relationship, rather than just rape. After all, slaves were considered to be the property of their master, whom which could do whatever they wanted with their property. Other characters include Linda's family, including her brother, who she is very close to. Her brother escapes from his master. I feel that this event in the story shows how all slaves have the mindset that freedom is desired above all else.

The characters point of view was also very important to the story, as well as very well written. As I mentioned above, the book followed the telling's of Linda Brent. Being a pseudonym to Harriet Jacobs, this book is considered to be an autobiography of her life as a slave. She tells the story with extreme detail. However, Jacobs reveals in the beginning of the book that there were aspects of her story that she could not bear to write down on paper. These details are able to create a vivid image for the reader. Although there are no illustrations in the book, the author uses word choice and language very effectively to create pictures in the readers head.

I enjoy reading books about war times and hardships. Out of all of the books that I have read about slavery, I believe that this may be the best written one. To read about personal experiences and real life events, it is much more descriptive than I would have ever thought when I picked up this book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member KendraRenee
enjoyed it, found it rather eye-opening as much as slavery stories can be for someone who's taken a bunch of decent american history classes, but I do wish it could be re-written for a different audience, because I found her constantly pleading tone a bit much, after awhile.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.14 x 0.96 inches


Page: 1.3466 seconds