Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – by Harriet Jakobs

Some of the greatest novels of all time have one distinct villain who dedicates his life to making the hero miserable by pursuing him relentlessly, against all odds and reason. Examples are Javert in Les Misérables or Danglars in The Count of Monte Cristo. We draw some comfort from the knowledge that those are fictional characters, and the stories are made up. Sadly, there are many examples in real life where tormentors do target single individuals with the simple objective of hurting and breaking them. Recently I reviewed the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. She tells the story of “the Bird,” a sadistic Japanese prison guard who tortures a prisoner of war. Unfortunately, “the Bird” is a real person, and the victim could have been any one of us.

slavegirlDr. Flint was a slave owner who took a liking to his slave Linda when she was a little girl. When she didn’t respond to the sexual harassment and abuse, he made it his life’s quest to hurt her in every way he could.

The book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the first autobiographical stories of female American slaves, was published as a novel in 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent. It was based the real story of Harriet Ann Jakobs, who was born a slave in South Carolina in 1813. After escaping slavery she became an abolitionist speaker and reformer.

Harriet educates us about aspects of slavery that we might not have thought about, particularly as it concerns women and girls. Since the slaves are the property of the master, they can do anything they want with them. That opens up obvious and unspeakable possibilities, especially concerning young and beautiful girls. Owners would abuse the girls sexually. The girls would get pregnant at a young age, and since the children follow the status of the mothers, the children, too, would be slaves. All the owner had to do is feed them to grow up, and thus they could expand their stable of “livestock.” Many of them were not morally concerned that these slaves were actually their own children. The mothers were inferior, so the children were too, no matter that they sired them themselves.

One of the most brutal practices of slavery was separation of families. Even if slaves were married and had children, the families still belonged to the owners. In times of financial distress, the owners would sell of the families, often in pieces. Fathers who were strong could be sold off for plantation work, while the mothers stayed behind. They would never see each other again. Worse, children would be sold one at a time, or as sibling packages, without the mothers. Scenes of wailing mothers begging to be bought along with their children, just so they could stay with them, were frequent at slave markets. The markets were the most dreadful experiences for slaves.

Injustice abounded. An old man, who may have worked as a family servant for generations, would simply be discarded like trash when he was old and feeble and could no longer work. Sometimes a slave might manage to get the funds to “buy himself” free. Often there was fraud, and the owners would take the money only to re-enslave the subject under some pretext or legal loophole that the hapless slave didn’t know about.

Slaves were kept ignorant. It was forbidden to teach them to read and write. An ignorant, uneducated man cannot improve his lot and certainly he can’t challenge authority.

When Linda escaped, she was hidden by her family in a little attic over a storage shed next to the porch of her grandmother’s house. The attic had a hidden trapdoor for access from the storage shed. It was nine feet long, seven feet wide and at the highest point only three feet high. It was completely dark, insect and rat-infested and not insulated. So in the summer it turned into an oven, and in the winter it was bitter cold. The roof leaked and could not be fixed without exposing the occupant.

In this hell hole Linda could not even stand up or exercise. She drilled a few small knot holes so light and air could come in. She tried to keep herself busy with sewing. Not even all the occupants in the house, like other slaves, knew about her presence there. Only her grandmother and uncle tended to her for her necessities.

She lived in this coffin for seven years.

Here I must stop, because Harriet Jakobs tells her own story in brilliant clarity herself much better than I ever could recount it.

If you are only going to read one book about slavery in your life, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the one I would recommend you read.

Rating: ****


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