Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

As the ship approaches New York, Linda finds herself fearing her own country. She finds Ellen making strides in her education, but Benny absent. He had been apprenticed to learn a trade, but when the other apprentices learn that he’s mixed race they abuse him until he leaves the job and embarks on a whaling voyage. Linda cries at this news, wishing she could have been there to protect him.
Linda brought her children to the North so they would have more opportunities, but they still face significant discrimination. Her efforts as a mother are inadequate to provide for them without social safeguards and legal rights.
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Soon after this, Linda receives a letter from Emily Flint, now married and called Mrs. Dodge. She reiterates her refusal to sell Linda, as she has always been very “attached” to her, but says that Linda can return south and find a kind home with her and her new husband, and perhaps eventually purchase her freedom. Feeling insulted by the letter’s false promises, Linda does not reply.
Emily’s “attachment” to Linda is like her mother’s attachment to Aunt Nancy – a relationship entirely predicated on exploitation and the inability to recognize the slave’s rights or humanity. It’s a marked contrast to the sincere friendship existing between Linda and the deceased Mrs. Bruce.
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Even though it might give her more peace of mind, Linda rejects the idea of trying to buy her freedom from Mrs. Dodge. She wants to invest her earnings in a home for her children, not pay the Flints after having given them years of her labor. She knows that she could be legally recaptured, and that Mrs. Dodge might even be able to sue for her children, but she doesn’t think it’s a serious concern. Linda reminds the reader that she made these decisions before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law—she trusts, perhaps too much, that Massachusetts will preserve her freedom and protect her.
It’s important that Linda puts these philosophical concerns over her safety – freedom isn’t just about physical security; it’s about the right to make decisions affirming one’s own humanity. While the North allows her to do this now, the imminent passage of the Fugitive Slave Law – requiring Northerners to turn in escaped slaves – equates to a negation of her humanity by a society that claims to value freedom.
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