Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet A. Jacobs escaped from enslavement in North Carolina in 1835, making her way to Philadelphia and then to New York. She wrote this memoir of her experience in enslavement and escape from it in the 1850s while she was in New York. A company in Boston published the narrative in 1860.
Harriet A. Jacobs
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 4, 5, 6 and 8.

I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered among the slaves of America. I would rather drudge out my life on a cotton plantation, till the grave opened to give me rest, than to live with an unprincipled master and a jealous mistress. The felon's home in a penitentiary is preferable. He may repent, and turn from the error of his ways, and so find peace; but it is not so with a favorite slave. She is not allowed to have any pride of character. It is deemed a crime in her to wish to be virtuous. 

Mrs. Flint possessed the key to her husband's character before I was born. She might have used this knowledge to counsel and to screen the young and the innocent among her slaves; but for them she had no sympathy. They were the objects of her constant suspicion and malevolence. She watched her husband with unceasing vigilance; but he was well practiced in means to evade it. What he could not find opportunity to say in words he manifested in signs. He invented more than were ever thought of in a deaf and dumb asylum. I let them pass, as if I did not understand what he meant; and many were the curses and threats bestowed on me for my stupidity. One day he caught me teaching myself to write. He frowned, as if he was not well pleased, but I suppose he came to the conclusion that such an accomplishment might help to advance his favorite scheme. Before long, notes were often slipped into my hand. I would return them, saying, "I can't read them, sir." "Can't you?" he replied; "then I must read them to you." He always finished the reading by asking, "Do you understand?" Sometimes he would complain of the heat of the tea room, and order his supper to be placed on a small table in the piazza. He would seat himself there with a well-satisfied smile, and tell me to stand by and brush away the flies. He would eat very slowly, pausing between the mouthfuls. These intervals were employed in describing the happiness I was so foolishly throwing away, and in threatening me with the penalty that finally awaited my stubborn disobedience. He boasted much of the forbearance he had exercised towards me, and reminded me that there was a limit to his patience. When I succeeded in avoiding opportunities for him to talk to me at home, I was ordered to come to his office, to do some errand. When there, I was obliged to stand and listen to such language as he saw fit to address to me. Sometimes I so openly expressed my contempt for him that he would become violently enraged, and I wondered why he did not strike me. Circumstanced as he was, he probably thought it was better policy to be forbearing. But the state of things grew worse and worse daily… 

I had entered my sixteenth year, and every day it became more apparent that my presence was intolerable to Mrs. Flint. Angry words frequently passed between her and her husband. He had never punished me himself, and he would not allow any body else to punish me. In that respect, she was never satisfied; but, in her angry moods, no terms were too vile for her to bestow upon me. Yet I, whom she detested so bitterly, had far more pity for her than he had, whose duty it was to make her life happy. I never wronged her, or wished to wrong her; and one word of kindness from her would have brought me to her feet. 

After repeated quarrels between the doctor and his wife, he announced his intention to take his youngest daughter, then four years old, to sleep in his apartment. It was necessary that a servant should sleep in the same room, to be on hand if the child stirred. I was selected for that office, and informed for what purpose that arrangement had been made. By managing to keep within sight of people, as much as possible during the day time, I had hitherto succeeded in eluding my master, though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to change this line of policy. At night I slept by the side of my great aunt, where I felt safe. He was too prudent to come into her room. She was an old woman, and had been in the family many years. Moreover, as a married man, and a professional man, he deemed it necessary to save appearances in some degree. But he resolved to remove the obstacle in the way of his scheme; and he thought he had planned it so that he should evade suspicion. He was well aware how much I prized my refuge by the side of my old aunt, and he determined to dispossess me of it. The first night the doctor had the little child in his room alone. The next morning, I was ordered to take my station as nurse the following night. A kind Providence interposed in my favor. During the day Mrs. Flint heard of this new arrangement, and a storm followed. I rejoiced to hear it rage… her color changed frequently, she wept, and sometimes groaned. She spoke in tones so sad, that I was touched by her grief. The tears came to my eyes; but I was soon convinced that her emotions arose from anger and wounded pride. She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted, but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband's perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed. 

Yet perhaps she had some touch of feeling for me; for when the conference was ended, she spoke kindly, and promised to protect me. I should have been much comforted by this assurance if I could have had confidence in it; but my experiences in slavery had filled me with distrust. She was not a very refined woman, and had not much control over her passions. I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I was placed. I could not blame her. Slave-holders' wives feel as other women would under similar circumstances… I pitied Mrs. Flint. She was a second wife, many years the junior of her husband; and the hoary-headed miscreant was enough to try the patience of a wiser and better woman. She was completely foiled, and knew not how to proceed. She would gladly have had me flogged for my supposed false oath; but, as I have already stated, the doctor never allowed any one to whip me… 

The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences… 

Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness. 

Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation; and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the slave-trader's hands as soon as possible, and thus getting them out of their sight. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    How does Jacobs describe the relationship with her male enslaver?
    She feels hatred towards him for his sexual advances and unending schemes to force her into succumbing to his efforts as a teenager. She describes his attraction to her and efforts to act on that as relentless, almost obsessive. Her enslaver tries to win her submission to him through special treatment, such as not allowing Jacobs to be subjected to the usual physical tortures of enslavement such as whipping. He forces her to be in his presence and tries to devise new ways to create an opportunity to rape her while still being able to “save appearances in some degree.”
  2. Question
    How does Jacobs describe the relationship with her female enslaver?
    Jacobs expresses some pity for her female enslaver: “I was touched by her grief,” “I pitied Mrs. Flint,” etc. But overall she sees her female enslaver as being unable to unify with her across gender lines against the male-dominated power system: “She might have used this knowledge to counsel and screen the young and innocent among her slaves; but for them she had no sympathy,” “she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed,” etc. Instead, Jacob’s female enslaver responded to her with envy and hatred.
  3. Question
    How does Jacobs describe the relationship and marriage between her male and female enslavers?
    The male enslaver is constantly trying to evade his wife and sexually assault Jacobs. Jacobs describes him as “well practiced in means to evade” his wife while doing so. The female enslaver was hurt by this, feeling that “her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted,” and responded with anger towards her husband (and towards Jacobs). Jacobs describes the “repeated quarrels between the doctor and his wife” and the “rage” of their arguments. She concludes that the female enslaver, “a second wife, many years the junior of her husband” could not match her husband, a “hoary-headed miscreant [who] was enough to try the patience of a wiser and better woman.”
  4. Question
    What insight does Jacobs’s account give us into the gender and race lines that existed on the plantation? How did race and gender collide and coexist on the plantation?
    Jacobs strived to align herself along gender lines, hoping that the female enslaver would empathize with her in their shared oppression in the male-dominated system, in which the male enslaver’s ignorance and sexual desire hurt both of them. Yet the female enslaver was unable to join along gender lines because she was blinded by racial lines she was unwilling to cross. The male enslaver obviously was willing to cross those racial lines in a way that the female enslaver was not. At the top of the gender and race hierarchy that Jacobs describes is the white male. The male enslaver’s sexual desire for Jacobs blurs the usual power line that one would expect of the white female enslaver being next in line in that power structure.
  5. Question
    To what extent did the prevalence of sexual assault on the plantation contradict the white supremacist vision? To what extent did it align with that vision?
    The prevalence of sexual assault on the plantation contradicted the enslavers’ concept of white supremacy because if the people that they enslaved were not human beings, then why were they sexually attracted to them and raping them? Yet the prevalence of sexual assault aligns with that vision because they could use it to justify rape of their own “property” and use sexual violence as a tactic to maintain power systems and hierarchies.
Reveal Answers
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