Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself

Battle, Michael

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself. By Harriet A. Jacobs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. xli + 228 p. $39.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Edited and introduced by Jean Fagan Yellin, this enlarged edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself is the incredible epic of Harriet Jacobs, 1813-1897, who endured and escaped from slavery in Edenton, North Carolina. I am especially drawn to Incidents since I was born in North Carolina and serve as a priest in the Episcopal Church in which Jacobs struggled fiercely to understand God’s presence in relation to her tragedy of slavery. Jacobs writes to Amy Post, her white Quaker friend, “I have … striven faithfully to give a true and just account of my own life in Slavery-God knows I have tried to do it in a Christian spirit. . .” (p. xv).

Jacobs expertly narrates her harsh life as a slave under the sexual exploitation of her North Carolina master. Technically, Jacobs was the slave of a three-year-old girl, whose father, the Episcopalian Dr. Flint, proved to be “a licentious master.” As Jacobs matured, he made her endure unrelenting sexual harassment. These tragic circumstances were further complicated by Jacobs’s sexual relationship with a young, white lawyer with whom she had two children. Because of her lack of loyalty to Dr. Flint, Jacobs was subjected to even harsher treatment by her jealous master and this forced her to the extremes of escape. For example, she states that she lived for six years hidden in a tiny crawlspace above a storeroom in her grandmother’s house (p. 144). Jacobs recounts:

Dark thoughts passed through my mind as I lay there day after day. I tried to be thankful for my little cell, dismal as it was, and even to love it, as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children. Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate Father, who would forgive my sins for the sake of my sufferings. At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government. I asked why the curse of slavery was permitted to exist, and why I had been so persecuted and wronged from the youth upward. These things took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter (p. 123).

During this hiding period, Jacobs practiced writing and reading to fill up her days. Perhaps most sustaining for her during this time was the Bible, to which she makes constant reference throughout her narrative. She eventually escapes her “cell of six years” (p. 144) and survives a sea voyage to New York where she finds both her freedom and her brother, John Jacobs, whose own narrative accompanies this enlarged edition.

For much of the twentieth century, Incidents was forgotten or thought to be an antislavery novel written by a white woman author. In fact, Jacobs’s life is so incredible a narrative that both Yellin and the original editor, Lydia Maria Child, spend a significant portion of their introductions authenticating Jacobs’s authorship. It was only when Yellin stumbled upon Jacobs’s letters and John Jacobs’s own narrative, “A True Tale of Slavery,” that Yellin put this volume together. Incidents is stunning for two reasons: a slave girl wrote it, and she wrote it with a cosmology of Christian forgiveness. I turn now to these two reasons as I encourage readers to indeed experience this story for themselves.

As to why this story is stunning, first, the reader will be enthralled by a self-educated slave girl who grew up to tell her life story through compelling prose. We learn from Yellin’s masterful edition of Incidents that much of the controversy surrounding the authenticity of Jacobs’s narrative concerns the fact that twentieth-century scholars of Afro-American literature assign importance not only to the role of white editors of slave narratives but also to the authenticating documents that accompany these texts. The problem here, however, is that the authenticating documents for Incidents are by persons without authority in an historical setting. For example, Incidents was not endorsed by a prominent white male but by a white woman (Lydia Maria Child) and a black man (John Jacobs). Therefore, the whole question about who has authority to verify the truth is a crucial aspect of what makes Incidents an invaluable and controversial work. About such authentication, Jacobs converses with Amy Post, “for I must write just what I have lived and witnessed myself, don’t expect much of me dear Amy you shall have truth but not talent” (p. xxii).

Secondly, Jacobs’s story is amazing because it articulates forgiveness. As a product of chattel slavery in which black women’s sexuality was seen as a commodity by white men, Jacobs continues to narrate a Christian ethic of forgiveness. She does this throughout her dual oppressions as a sexually exploited black woman and as a single mother trying to nurture her children despite the law that her children were the property of another white master. Jacobs’s understanding of the Christian ethic of forgiveness contained the complexity of making sense of her own sexual history in light of a legal system in which she was not in possession of herself or her children. Jacobs reconciles her lack of chastity in such a system as she states:

But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery. I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless in my despair (p. 54).

Jacobs’s constant refrain of “do not judge” ironically becomes an indictment on us as readers in the twenty-first century. “0 virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave” (p. 55) judges current Christian piety in which contemporary freedom has seldom produced as virtuous a life as that of Harriet Jacobs. Because she learned not to condemn herself, Jacobs invites the reader to understand a Christian ethic of forgiveness in which she depends on us as her future generations to help her anticipate a better world. As she states above, she could not maintain her convictions because “I was struggling alone.” The power of Incidents, however, is that she makes us struggle with her.

We struggle with Jacobs in her context of slavery that is akin to the extreme heat of the South. She states, “Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders” (p. 174). Most of all in this context, Jacobs teaches us to distinguish between Christianity and religion in the sense that many call themselves religious and yet, such religious persons as her master Dr. Flint, a respectable member of the Episcopal Church, never connected how Christian character related to Christian actions. In fact, writes Jacobs:

There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south. . . . When I was told that Dr. Flint had joined the Episcopal Church, I was much surprised. I supposed that religion had a purifying effect on the character of men; but the worst persecutions I endured from him were after he was a communicant …. No wonder the slaves sing, “Ole Satan’s church is here below/up to God’s free church I hope to go” (pp. 74-75).

In the end, Jacobs forgives. It is in this forgiveness that the reader again questions how such a story could be true. How could this woman who endured so much pain at the hands of white people still find communion and forgiveness? The answer again is that she no longer struggled alone, she found community. For example, she was able to leave the United States, an adventure seldom given to an African-American slave, and find Christian community in England. It is in this adventure to England that Jacobs describes her restored faith. She states:

My visit to England is a memorable event in my life, from the fact of my having there received strong religious impressions. The contemptuous manner in which the communion had been administered to colored people, in my native place; the church membership of Dr. Flint, and others like him; and the buying and selling of slaves, by professed ministers of the gospel, had given me a prejudice against the Episcopal church. The whole service seemed to me a mockery and a sham. But my home in Steventon was in the family of a clergyman, who was a true disciple of Jesus. The beauty of his daily life inspired me with faith in the genuineness of Christian professions. Grace entered my heart, and I knelt at the communion table, I trust, in true humility of soul (p. 185).


Duke University Divinity School Durham, North Carolina

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2001

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