Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Quotes and Analysis

They lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 7

One of the interesting things about Harriet's early life is that she did not know she was a slave; she lived in relative comfort and security with her mother and father - who were married - as well as her extended family. This was rather uncommon for several reasons, the first being that Harriet came from a nuclear family and that she was not treated poorly as a child. In her childhood, as well as in her adulthood, she benefited from the stability provided to her by her family. Although her parents died when she was young, her grandmother remained the central figure in her life, providing her with comfort, security, moral guidance, and unrelenting love. Harriet's realization that she was a slave was a startling one; once she learned that she was a slave she could never reverse this knowledge and was thus stuck with the psychological trauma of knowing that she was a piece of property. Interestingly enough, when she is finally freed by the second Mrs. Bruce, she reiterates her astonishment that a human being could ever be seen as merely an object to be bought and sold.

Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach; presumptuous in him, and dangerous to the masters.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 12

One of the ways in which slaveholders justified slavery was by enforcing the claim that slaves were not really human beings. They were savage, barbarous, inferior in all respects. A slave who thought he possessed value and tried to inculcate such value in other slaves was deemed dangerous and was usually suppressed. Harriet's father tried to teach his children that they had worth, but this interfered with the slaveholders' desire to keep slaves docile and dumb. Harriet's uncle Benjamin also asserted his autonomy and his refusal to bow down to his master, and was severely punished. He eventually ran away to escape his situation. Harriet mentions several times in Incidents how Mrs. Flint seemed shocked that a slave might want to be virtuous or that a slave might want to read, worship, mourn, and maintain social connections. Unfortunately, some slaves often internalized this mentality; this made it difficult for slaves to rebel or to find any meaning in their lives. Desensitized, they could cope with slavery without having to contemplate their inferior status in society.

The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 30-31

Harriet details her persecutions from Dr. Flint and seeks to correct the assumption that a slaveholder's wife would have any interest in protecting young slave girls from her husband's predation. This is categorically untrue, particularly in the case of Mrs. Flint. She is jealous and irate that her husband has sexual relations with his slaves and is so obviously enamored of Harriet. Slavery has ruined the life of Mrs. Flint and hardened her into a cruel, irrational, and paranoid woman. Too many years in the violent and uncivilized south cannot help but destroy morality and feelings of humanity. Mrs. Flint barely conceives of Harriet as a person, and it is insulting to her that her husband violates the sanctity of the marriage bed to take up with someone she views as naturally inferior. Psychologically, it is easier for women to convince themselves that slave women are harlots who have designs upon their husbands rather than that their own husbands have viciously betrayed them.

Reader, I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from the wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, "full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness." Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 39

Harriet Jacobs does not only present a damning portrait of slavery as practiced by avaricious Southern slaveholders and their families; she also spares little criticism of northerners in many places in the text. Here she excoriates those northerners who follow the Fugitive Slave Law and send back the poor slaves that escaped to the north. She also evinces disdain for the northerners who willingly marry their daughters to slaveholders without any twinge of conscience. Their daughters will become jealous mistresses, happy to dole out judgment and punishment to the poor wretches they own. Harriet also criticizes northerners who travel south and do not cast a keen eye on what is truly happening in that region; they are content to lap up the words of slaveholders about how happy the slaves are and return to the free states, wondering why the abolitionists are so forceful in their critiques. Jacobs' direct address to the reader acts as a plea to her intended audience - white women - to reexamine their preconceived notions of slavery.

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, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 49

A common myth articulated by slaveholders to justify their participation in the "peculiar institution" is that slaves were naturally inferior in terms of intellect. Jacobs does not accept this assumption at all and ably refutes it by telling her readers that blacks are only inferior because slavery and the white man have rendered him so. If a black man is refused education, is kept from religion, and lives his life in a paranoid and frightened state, it is no wonder that he cannot develop his mind. The mere fact that Harriet (and others, like Frederick Douglass) can write such a remarkable book is testament to the abilities of blacks when given the right opportunities to attain learning and cultivation of the mind. Harriet's work seeks to combat stereotypes that lead whites to look upon slaves as subhuman; if this can be accomplished, the system of bondage will look less and less desirable.

Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 52

Harriet is blunt in her assessment that slavery is bad for everybody, not just slaves. While slaves certainly faced institutionalized abuse and deprivation, southern whites were also destroyed by this pernicious system, albeit in subtler ways. Anyone who came in contact with slavery was tainted. Slaveowners and their families were often unmoored from morality and were paragons of hypocrisy. They were religious frauds as well as simply frauds in all other capacities; they found ways to delude themselves and trick others. Even those whites who may have come into the slave system full of virtue often found themselves embracing the traits of the other whites - avarice, corruption, jealousy, violence, lust. Whites who did not own slaves were filled with greed and carried out the grossest acts in their desire to climb the economic and social ladder. Men gave full vent to their primal desires and raped slave women. Women looked the other way when this happened or manifested their fury into jealousy and then took it out on the slave girls. Children imbibed the lessons their parents taught them, or, worse, what they observed. This, then, is one of Harriet's best anti-slavery arguments: slavery is just as bad for whites as it is for blacks, and all bad behavior percolates and spreads.

Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 86

What differentiates Harriet's narrative from those of male slaves, such as Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, is that she details the particularly terrible situation for girls and women. They were subject to the same backbreaking labor, harsh punishments, and insulting treatment as men were, but women also faced myriad other traumas. They were often raped by white men (usually their master) and bore their children. These children were often treated poorly or taken from their mother. They could expect abuse from the slaveholders' wives because of their jealousy. Like Harriet's Aunt Nancy, they might have problems carrying children to term because of physical duress. They were rarely free to marry whom they pleased and saw many of their familial connections severed. Any child born to a slave woman was also considered a slave, so motherhood was almost always tinged with apprehension if not outright grief. Overall, the fact that their bodies were not their own was perhaps the most terrible component of slavery for women. Jacobs tries to give full emphasis to this fact in order to sway the sentiments of northern readers, particularly white women who would be most likely empathetic to her plight.

We could have told them a different story. We could have given them a chapter of wrongs and sufferings, that would have touched their hearts, if they had any hearts to feel for the colored people. We could have told them how the poor old slave-mother had toiled, year after year, to earn eight hundred dollars to buy her son Phillip's right to his own earnings; and how that same Phillip paid the expenses of the funeral, which they regarded as doing so much credit to the master. We could also have told them of a poor, blighted young creature, shut up in a living grave for years, to avoid the tortures that would be inflicted on her, if she ventured to come out and look on the face of her departed friend.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 164

In this passage, which follows the death of Aunt Nancy and describes the outward appearance of her funeral, Harriet strikes down the myth of the happy slave and tries to get northern readers to truly understand how deceitful slaveholders are and how the reality they propagate is completely and utterly false. White visitors to the south and even the whites who lived there assumed that if slaves were singing, they were happy. They contented themselves that slavery was good for the slave. When they saw slaves participating in rituals such as holidays and the funeral depicted here, they believed that the most benign image of slavery was transmitted. Of course, like almost everything concerning the white understanding of slavery, this was not true. Behind the facade lay pain, suffering, injustice, and weariness. Aunt Nancy's life was a sad one and she died a slave. Harriet makes mention of northerners being impressed by the happy slaves and the well-run plantations of the south elsewhere in the book, but nowhere else is it as melancholy.

For the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 204

Harriet's visit to England is one of the most interesting parts of the text. Accompanying the daughter of Mr. and the late Mrs. Bruce on a visit to relatives, Harriet is struck at the lack of discrimination and racial prejudice abroad. There she feels that her complexion is not a factor at all, and certainly not a hindrance. This is in stark contrast to her reception in upstate New York, where she encounters just as much racism as in the south - albeit with less repercussions. England is a place where the individual is valued for their worth, not the color of their skin. Harriet also discusses how England is better than the south in many other ways. The poor people there do not live in the same degradation and squalor. There is more life, more liveliness, more vigor. Family ties were valued and respected. People were cheerier and more appreciative of their lives - because their lives were fully their own. Finally, even religion was free of the same hypocrisy; Christians there actually followed the tenets of the Bible and lived moral lives.

So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it.

Harriet Jacobs, p. 223

Harriet is relieved to be free, but her feelings are mixed. She expresses in this passage her inability to fathom that, as a human being, she actually could be bought and sold. This tragic oddity made her reluctant to let Mrs. Bruce purchase her freedom from Mr. Dodge, and once it is accomplished despite her misgivings, she still reiterates how unable she is to accept this reality. She somewhat poetically steps outside the narration and encourages the reader to look to the future when this document will be something at which to wonder. After slavery's end, this paper will be a quaint reminder of this antiquated and base system and will no doubt bring about astonishment in the individuals who regard it. Harriet's complex feelings on her freedom are rather unique in slave narratives. Also interesting is her assertion that her tale does not end the way most tales of this nature - i.e., sentimental novels or narratives - do, which means in marriage. Her tale ends in freedom. Both of these unique elements of Harriet's story help establish her as a woman of keen intellect and deep feeling.