Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Essay
The book ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ by Harriet Jacobs is an account of the life of a woman who was born a slave. It is written as the story of Linda Brent, but in fact, many of the details are taken directly from the life of the author herself. It shows the world from the point of view of a female slave, which at times can be difficult and distressing because women in this situation had very little control over their own destiny. The book is inspiring in its main messages, and it shows Linda’s courage in the face of many obstacles. In addition to its uplifting message, the book also provides a deep insight into the conditions of slavery, and what effects it had on both African American slaves and white slave owners.
One very positive feature in the book is that it tries to be balanced and fair when describing the relationship between slaves and their owners. Some owners, like Dr. Flint and his wife, are cruel and selfish, treating their slaves very badly. Other owners, like the woman who was her mother’s mistress, are kind and generous to the slaves. This shows that the story is not a condemnation of all white people, but rather a critique of the institution of slavery. The position of children who were born through relationships between male owners and female slaves is perhaps most difficult of all because they do not fully belong to any racial group in a society that operates mainly on racist assumptions. This explains Linda’s deep and constant concern for the fate of her two children which she has with the white man Mr. Sands.
It is interesting to note that throughout the book Linda is generally helped by other women, including other slaves and her family. She has to meet the expectations of her gender as well as of her low status in society, and this means that she desperately wants to live up to her grandmother’s high moral standards. She makes choices, such the decision to give herself to Mr. Sands, which she knows are morally wrong, but her reasons are clearly explained in terms of the greater wrong that is done to her, when she is pursued by Dr. Flint: “I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.” (Jacobs, p. 40) Despite this statement, it is clear that Linda suffers real pain because of the shame, in the eyes of her grandmother at least, of having two children to a white man.
One aspect of the book that was particularly interesting was the insight that it gives to the disruption of family bonds that slavery caused. Linda writes that she was extremely happy as a young child, and did not even realize she was a slave (Jacobs, p. 11). Her parents managed to protect her from the harms of slavery, and provide a secure and loving home. Unfortunately, Linda is tormented by her own inability to provide the same security for her own children, and this is one of the saddest messages of the book. After working as a slave, running away, spending time abroad and ultimately finding a quiet place to live out her life in peace, Linda Brent demonstrates admirable determination and strength of character, and her insider perspective as a slave illuminates a difficult era in American history, reminding modern readers of the wrongs that were done and their human consequences.
References Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, 1861. Reprinted, Harvard University Press, 1987.