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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacob's owner placed an advertisement in newspapers offering a $100 reward for Jacob's capture. Image courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Harriet Jacob's owner placed an advertisement in newspapers offering a $100 reward for Jacob's capture. Image courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.


The “best-known, nineteenth-century African-American woman’s autobiography” is how historian Nell Irvin Painter describes Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861).   The Tar Heel’s work is also noteworthy because Jacobs penned the words, unlike other slave autobiographies, including Sojourner Truth’s, which were dictated.  The book’s cumbersome title makes this point evident.  

The slave autobiography describes the cruelty of slavery, debunks the myth of the content or happy slave, and argues that a slave’s behavior must be judged by different standards than those applied to free people.  Harriet Jacobs’s slave experiences in Edenton, North Carolina influenced her themes and rationalizations for her behavior.  (Her judgmental grandmother denounced Jacob’s physical relationship with an unmarried white lawyer and held her grandaughter to moral standards that wavered not in trying times.)

After she fled to the North, Jacobs was encouraged by friends to write her story.  She started writing her story (in secret) during the 1850s, and it was ready for publication in 1861.  Using a pseudonym, Linda Brent, Jacobs described the horrors of slavery and discussed topics, including rape and prostitution, theretofore unmentionable in print.  After searching in vain for a publisher, Jacobs found a Boston firm willing to publish her work.  The company experienced financial difficulties in late 1860, so one of Jacobs’s friends provided a subvention so that the book might be published in 1861.  


The secession of the Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy understandably distracted editors from Incidents publication.  A few abolitionist journals, including National Anti-Slavery Standard and Anglo-African, praised the book for shedding light on how the peculiar institution fostered moral and sexual turpitude.  Overall, however, editors ignored the book, and it went into obscurity until the Civil Rights Movement.


Sources:

Nell Irvin Painter, ed., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs (reprint, New York, 2000).


See Also:

Related Categories: Religion, Education, Civil Rights Movement, African American
Related Encyclopedia Entries: John W. Ellis (1820-1862), Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, Secession, Salem Brass Band, Confederate States Navy (in North Carolina), United States Navy (Civil War activity), James Iredell Waddell (1824-1886), CSS Neuse, USS Underwriter, Warren Winslow (1810-1862), Prelude to the Battle of Averasboro, The Battle of Averasboro-Day One, Louis Froelich and Company, Louis Froelich (1817-1873), North Carolina Button Factory, CSA Arms Factory, Ratification Debates, Peace Party (American Civil War), Braxton Bragg (1817-1876), Daniel Harvey Hill (1821-1889), Battle of Bentonville, Bryan Grimes (1828-1880), Fort Hatteras, Fort Fisher, Fort Clark, Fort Macon, Daniel Russell (1845-1908), The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, Union League, Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877), Battle of Forks Road, Aaron McDuffie Moore (1863-1923), Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) , Fort Anderson (Confederate), Battle of Deep Gully and Fort Anderson (Federal), James T. Leach (1805-1883), Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock (1839-1903), Thomas Bragg (1810-1872), Curtis Hooks Brogden (1816-1901), John Motley Morehead (1796-1866), David Lowry Swain (1801-1868), Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894), Alamance County (1849), Gates County (1779), Clay County (1861), Lenoir County (1791), Union County (1842), Teague Band (Civil War), Fort Hamby Gang (Civil War), Shelton Laurel Massacre , Parker David Robbins (1834-1917), Henry Eppes (1831-1917), Washington County (1799), Hertford County (1759), Rutherford County (1779), Granville County (1746), Salisbury Prison (Civil War), Stoneman's Raid, James City, Fort York, Asa Biggs (1811 - 1878), Thomas Clingman (1812 - 1897), Matt W. Ransom (1826 - 1904), St. Augustine's College, Peace College, Election Case of Joseph Abbott and Zebulon Vance, Stephen Dodson Ramseur (1837 - 1864) , Vance Birthplace, Matthew Calbraith Butler (1836-1909), Wade Hampton III (1818-1902), The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads (March 10, 1865), Carolinas Campaign (January 1865-April 1865), William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), Confederate Surrender at Bennett's Place (April 17-26, 1865), Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (1836-1881) and the Carolinas Campaign, Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) and the Carolinas Campaign, Reginald Hawkins (1923-2007), Civil Rights Movement, Henry E. Frye (1932- ) , Restrictive covenants, Residential segregation, Dorothy Counts (1942- ), Griggs v. Duke Power, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Greensboro Sit-In, North Carolina Mutual Life, Kenneth R. Williams (1912-1989), Voting Rights Act of 1965, Greensboro Shootings, Robert Franklin Williams (1925-1996), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)., Ella Baker ( 1903 - 1986), Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, David Walker (1785 – 1830), Leonard Medical School, Concerned Parents Association, Secret Basketball Game of 1944, Claude Sitton (1925-), Soul City, Charles B. Aycock (1859-1912), Wilson Carey (1831-1905?), Robeson County (1787), The Freedmen’s Conventions, Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883-1961), Simkins v. Cone (1963)
Related Commentary: Toward an Inclusive History of the Civil War: Society and the Home Front, Edward Bonekemper on the Cowardice of General McClellan, Freedmen’s Bank Served Blacks in Post-Civil War Economy, Speaker Ban Law, Frederick Douglass Re-emerging As American Icon, Success of Postwar Freedmen A Worthy Study for Historians
Related Lesson Plans: Discussion of the Lunsford Lane Narrative
Timeline: 1836-1865
Region: Statewide

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