Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary and Analysis of Chapters XIX-XXIV


Chapter XIX - The Children Sold

Harriet writes that Dr. Flint had come back from New York, disheartened that he had still not found Harriet and because he spent so much money. Mr. Sands, through a slave-trader, began pressing him to sell William and Harriet's children again. Dr. Flint finally decided that he would do it, and signed a deal that put them in the hands of the trader. Dr. Flint did not know that the trader had already sold them to Mr. Sands, and ordered William to be put in bonds as they traveled out of town. This was agreed upon to keep up appearances.

Dr. Flint saw the wagon leave town. The trader told William once they were out of sight that he was a "damned clever fellow" and said he would buy him himself if he could. This man "seemed to have some feeling" and it was kind of him to aid them without collecting a trader's fee.

Harriet's uncle found a wagon and took William and the children back to town. Harriet had no idea that there was such a tremendous rejoicing going on at her grandmother's house, and became worried when she experienced a dream or a vision of her children. Her fears were allayed when Betty came and told her what had truly happened.

Once word was out that Harriet's family was back in town, the Dr. went to Aunt Marthy's house and asked her who bought them. She told him, and he was enraged, saying Harriet herself would be his slave forever. Harriet, for her part, was mightily relieved. Whatever slavery did to her, "it could not shackle my children."

Chapter XX - New Perils

Dr. Flint's exasperation manifested itself in taking revenge out on Harriet's family. He jailed her uncle Phillip, accusing him of aiding Harriet. Phillip remained quiet, but Harriet feared he would crack under the Dr.'s cruelty and insults. The search for Harriet was renewed, as it was rumored that she was in the vicinity. It became clear that Harriet could stay there no longer; the house where she stayed was searched and she trembled under the floorboards.

It was not easy for Harriet to go north, so another plan was devised. Betty brought Harriet a suit of sailor's clothes. Peter, another young colored man whom Harriet knew had been a friend of her father's, conducted her through the town. She felt revived by being out of doors. No one recognized her in her disguise.

She arrived at the wharf. Her Aunt Nancy's husband was a seafaring man and had agreed to help her. He took her on his small boat and told her the plan was for her to hide in Snaky Swamp until her uncle Phillip prepared a hiding place for her. She was terrified of the swamp and passed a miserable night due to the vicious mosquitoes and massive snakes. Finally Peter, the young man who was her guide, told her that a place for her to hide was prepared at her grandmother's place. Harriet was surprised, since she knew that the Flints were aware of every square inch of that house. She put her disguise back on and was led through the streets. Once she passed by the father of her children but he did not recognize her.

Chapter XXI - The Loophole Of Retreat

Harriet explains that there had been a shed built on her grandmother's property. There were boards laid across and then a triangular space made above them. This was to be Harriet's hiding place. No air or light was admitted. The highest part was only three feet tall. She was given a bed and laid there, even as rats and mice ran over her. This comfortless place was not terrible, however, because she could finally hear her children's voices below.

Her hiding place was cramped and she longed for the light. All of this was preferable to slavery, of course, and she was grateful that she was not lacerated, beaten, worked to death, or chained up. One day she found a small tool that allowed her to make a one-inch hole. This admitted light and she sat near it, reveling in the whiff of air that came in. She also was able to look out on the street, but shuddered when she saw Dr. Flint.

In her hiding place, she was attacked by hundreds of red insects and was burned by the hot sun. She was able to hear the conversations below her during the day, and heard that Dr. Flint traveled to New York to look for her again. This gave her some comfort.

In the autumn the heat eased and she had become accustomed to the dim light and could sew and read. In the winter she was nearly always frostbitten and miserable. However, she was continually grateful for her place of concealment. No one suspected that she was there.

Chapter XXII - Christmas Festivities

Harriet describes Johnkannaus, a tradition among the slaves. Two men wear costumes and the companies of slaves follow them, dancing and singing, to ask for trifles - pennies or rum - from the whites in their town. Harriet notes that Christmas was a day of feasting for both whites and blacks, and Aunt Marthy roasted a pig and a turkey each year.

Harriet was sad that she could not experience Christmas with her children, but was pleased that she could see them walking on the street in their new suits that she had made. Christmas was a day of feasting for both blacks and whites, and Harriet's grandmother had two guests over. One was a white constable and one was a free colored man who wanted to try and pass himself off as white. This led him to "do any mean work for the sake of currying favor with white people." He was a despicable man whom Harriet hated even more than the constable, for at least that man did not pretend to be someone he was not. The intention of inviting these men over was to let them wander freely through the house and see that no one was hiding there.

Chapter XXIII - Still In Prison

Harriet grew even wearier of her imprisonment. There seemed to be no palatable options for escape. It seemed incomprehensible that Dr. Flint could walk about unfettered while she was stuck in her hiding place; after all, he was the true criminal.

The seasons passed and brought with them much misery for Harriet, although she still preferred her situation to slavery. She became very ill and William brought her medicine. During her illness her grandmother broke down under "the weight of anxiety and toil", and many of the ladies of the town came to visit her to pay their respects. Even Mrs. Flint came, bowing to the pressure of society. Dr. Flint visited her too and both expressed their conviction that Harriet would soon be dead. Thankfully they did not return.

Chapter XXIV - The Candidate For Congress

Harriet learned that her children's father was running for Congress as a Whig candidate. Even though Dr. Flint worked earnestly against him, Mr. Sands won the election. Harriet worried that once he went off to Washington he would not be able to do anything for the children. She wanted them emancipated.

She figured he would visit her grandmother's house before he left, so, in her weak state, she pulled herself downstairs and hid in the storeroom. He did indeed visit, and when he passed by she called out to him. They spoke for a few minutes; he was incredulous of her situation but promised to free the children. When her grandmother found out that she had exposed herself in such a risky situation, she was alarmed. Harriet told her not to worry.

It took the help of Phillip to get Harriet back up to her hiding place. She wondered if the exertion might make her a cripple for life, and "had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die".


In these chapters Harriet reveals the depth of her commitment to her and her children's freedom by taking up her hiding place in the space above the shed of her grandmother's house. There she remained for seven years, suffering all manner of discomfort. This episode would no doubt have elicited awe in the northern women who were reading her work; the incredible sacrifice Harriet made for her children was something that many of them probably would not have been able to endure. The fact that Harriet's escape is motivated almost solely by her motherly instincts is also a crucial point in her narrative and one that was seen as admirable and appropriate by her audience.

In her hiding place Harriet spends a lot of time reflecting on her situation as well as on the larger context of slavery. She marvels that Dr. Flint can walk about free while she is trapped inside the hiding place; between them, he is the true criminal. She also struggles with her feelings of depression and anger as well as the terrible discomfort of her situation, but is able to put those feelings aside when she thinks about the slaves who have not been lucky enough to escape their bondage. There is also a tension for Harriet in the sense that while she is "free" from having to participate in the system of slavery as far as her body goes – working, suffering privation and punishment, communicating with her oppressor – she is still not actually free. She is still owned by Dr. Flint and she remains in the south. For much of the rest of Incidents, especially after she travels north, Harriet grapples psychologically with what the true meaning of freedom is.

Harriet mentions a black man who represented a type that slaves themselves could not stomach: the "race traitor", someone that curried favor with the whites in order to build himself up and pass as white. Harriet wrote that "he was ready to kiss the slaveholder's feet" (133) and that she despised him. She much preferred the white town constable because at least he, in his callousness and depravity, was no hypocrite; he was open about his moral failings unlike the black man who tried to pass himself off as someone else. This was disconcerting to slaves because it meant that there were some among them whom they could not trust; Jenny, the slave of the white woman in whose home Harriet hides after she first runs away, is another one of these untrustworthy slaves who, for whatever reason, were interested in maintaining and expanding their own power at the expense of their brethren. Of course, it makes sense psychologically that black men and women who were so completely marginalized would grasp at any chance they had for asserting themselves, but it is lamentable that they did so at the expense of others in the same situation.

In Chapter XXII, Harriet spends time discussing the religious holiday of Christmas, which was just as significant for blacks as whites. However, the Christmas she describes includes something called the "Johnkannaus." Also known as Jonkonnu, Johnkannaus, John Coonah, or John Canoe, it entailed a few of the slave men from the plantations dressing up in costumes that included animal horns and masks, and walking from house to house playing instruments, singing, and dancing. They visited the plantation homes of the masters and expected to receive gifts of money after they performed. Usually crowds of slave men and women followed them about; it was a joyous experience that adults and children in the slave community looked forward to immensely. The historical record shows the Johnkannaus appearing in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. It spread to the southern colonies in America and also remained a presence in the Caribbean. Its origins are said to be West African.

The central place the Johnkannaus occupied in the lives of slaves is indicative of how important ritual, tradition, and history were to the slave community. Slave life in the south was often a fusion of American and African elements; this is evident in the inclusion of this African component in the western religious holiday of Christmas. The historian Nancy Prigg writes that there was a real historical figure named John Conny or John Connu from a tribe at Tres Puntas in Axim on the Guinea Coast. Historian Sterling Stuckey elaborates on this, writing of a Nigerian ritual that resembles the John Kunering (another form of the name), which took place in early summer to spiritually aid crop production. When the African Americans fused it with the Christmas holiday, Europeans assumed it was mostly for the benefit of the children but overlooked that it had a deeper significance in honoring one's ancestors. The African American slaves were aware of how the Christmas holiday for whites included gift giving, worship, and festivities, and took advantage of that understanding and incorporated the exchange of gifts among themselves and also encouraged them from their masters. The literary critic Karen E. Beardslee writes that "such blendings may have served to satisfy an ancient need – honoring their ancestors and each other – as well as a new one – collecting much needed money and/or food."