Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs, edited by Lisa Barsky.
The Townsend Library, Townsend Press, New Jersey, 2004 (first pub. 1861).
Slave narrative, 152 pages including editor’s afterword.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 7.1 (worth 14.0 points) .
NOTE: I read a printed book which had been edited and contained additional back matter. Project Gutenberg has a free ebook version of the original text available.
The autobiography of a young woman born into slavery in 1813.
This book is remarkable, and I’m only surprised I didn’t read it sooner! But let me write a review anyway in case you need more convincing and haven’t clicked the link above to read it already. So many aspects of Jacob’s life are typical of her time, place, and station in life, but she herself is not very typical.
Jacobs does describe the realities of being a female slave in the South. Although she has had the luck of a happy childhood, the chance to learn how to read and write, and early in life learned to sew well, she is not immune to the despicable rapist culture. Choosing the lesser evil, at 16 Jacobs finds herself a single mother after becoming the lover of a wealthy and powerful unmarried man who might be able to give her some protection from the assaults of her master. Her heart also breaks as she understands the unique heartbroken love of a slave mother for her children.
Time and time again, Jacobs is forced to make choices in her life not for her own agency, but as a reaction to oppression. Every decision is trying to navigate the world for the best possible outcome for herself and her family, and she is constantly heartbreakingly close to death or worse.
Although she fits her story into the formula of the slave narrative and changes nearly all the names and a few other identifying details, Jacobs’ personality still shines through. Her tenacious spirit helps her carry on in desperate situations and continually persevere in her goal of freeing and uniting her family.
With all the reading I’ve been doing lately about childhood trauma, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jacobs’ successes and perseverance were influenced by her happy, secure attachments in early childhood. Certainly the love and support of her extended family and later friends, was essential.
Jacobs is religious, but not afraid to call out the duplicitous nature of slaveholding Christians, in particular her owner’s wife and a few others. She also rails against the unjust system that won’t allow her to legally marry a free man she loves, but thinks nothing of her master fathering a dozen children through rape and adultery.
Indeed, Jacobs herself is described as ‘mulatto’ and points out that her grandfathers were both white men and her mother was owned by her half-sister. Her pointed critique of various power systems is the best part of an excellent memoir.
In 2018 I read Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and mentioned that it would bear rereading because there were so many historical and literary references that the ones I caught were only the outer layers of the onion. Although that book is a work of fiction, many (possibly all) of the scenarios Cora encounters are based on real events in American history. Reading this book at one point took my breath away because I was so surprised realizing that a certain section of Cora’s life was very closely based on Jacobs’ real life story. In a few years I hope to reread Whitehead’s book with an even greater understanding of the depth.
Although the original text is available as a free ebook, I read a physical copy of the book published by the Townsend Library. It was edited and contains a 16 page Afterword. I did find the afterword helpful in summarizing and analyzing Jacobs’ life, providing more information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of this book, and filling the reader in on what happened in her life after the book ends.
Because Jacobs does speak frankly about the physical and sexual realities of slavery, I wouldn’t suggest this book as a whole for young readers. She doesn’t describe specific encounters or harassment in detail, so I would still include this in middle school libraries, but would recommend pre-reading before you use it with a class or if you have any concerns. Be aware that Jacobs also occasionally uses curse words or slurs, typically in quotations. This definitely is a work that should be in all high school and adult libraries.
I’ve read several slave narratives before, both years ago during my education and as I seek to better understand US History. But this one was especially moving and insightful. If you’re only familiar with the male side of the story, Jacob’s story is a can’t-miss.