Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Harriet Jacobs

As described in her narrative, Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in South Carolina and eventually escaped to New York, where she was reunited with her two children. While working as a nurse in the Willis family (named the Bruces in this narrative) Harriet began to write about her life, encouraged by her friend Amy Post, a noted Quaker abolitionist. In 1861, just as the Civil War was starting, she published Incidents under a pseudonym, Linda Brent. As the book became popular, Jacobs began to give lectures and returned to the South to organize food and housing for escaped slaves and black refugees from the war. By the end of the war, she had concentrated her efforts on building schools to educate freed slaves and their children. She continued this work in the decades after the war alongside her daughter Louisa, who had trained as a teacher. After the Civil War, Incidents fell out of print; because it was written under a pseudonym, scholars believed it to be a novel. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist historian Jean Fagan Yellin proved it was in fact a memoir and brought it and its author back into the public eye, making it one of the most well-known slave narratives.
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Historical Context of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Slavery existed in America from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries. By facilitating the cheap production of cash crops like cotton and tobacco, slave labor allowed the United States to become economically successful. Although the vast majority of plantations using slave labor were situated in the South and slavery was banned in most Northern states by the beginning of the 1800s, much of the nation still depended on and benefited from slavery, as raw materials produced by slaves were manufactured in Northern factories, and industries from banking and insurance to shipbuilding profited by upholding the system of slavery. In the decades before the Civil War, movements for the abolition of slavery became increasingly popular in the North, especially as the United States began to expand westward and new states had to decide whether to ban or allow slavery. At the same time, the 1850s were marked by advances for proponents of slavery, like the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed the recapture of escaped slaves from states in which slavery was illegal, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which stated that no African American could have citizenship or legal rights in the US. In 1861, the conflict erupted into the Civil War, leading to the abolition of slavery in 1865. Despite its official end, the legacy of slavery persists in the racism and discrimination experienced by African Americans today.

Other Books Related to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

The American slave narrative is a genre of literature that describes slavery from the point of view of its victims. Although such narratives were recorded from the 16th to the 18th century, they were especially popular in the decades prior to the Civil War, when abolitionists used them to generate popular condemnation of slavery. Published in 1845, fifteen years before Incidents, the The Narrative of Frederick Douglass is the most famous work in this genre. Slave narratives are still being published today: In 2018, historian Deborah Plant published Barracoon, a collection of author Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with a former slave. Besides slave narratives, Jacobs’s era saw the rise of anti-slavery fiction, such as the famous Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that portrayed the injustices of slavery.
Key Facts about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Full Title: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
  • When Written: 1850s
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1861
  • Literary Period: Antebellum American
  • Genre: Memoir, slave narrative
  • Setting: Antebellum America
  • Climax: Linda’s escape from North Carolina
  • Antagonist: Dr. Flint, slavery
  • Point of View: First-person limited

Extra Credit for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

North Star. For about a year, Harriet Jacobs operated an anti-slavery reading room in the same building as Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

Holding Her Own. While she was working on Incidents, Jacobs wrote to anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe for literary advice, but Beecher just asked to use elements of Jacobs’s story in her own novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jacobs refused permission and eventually succeeded in publishing her narrative herself.