Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

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This was originally published anonymously, so the author goes by the name of Linda. Her father was a carpenter. His master hired him out and allowed him to keep some of the money he earned. He saved up and wanted to buy his children’s freedom, but he wasn’t allowed to. Her maternal grandmother was freed at her master’s death, but she got captured and sold to another, so even if a slave master freed his slaves at death, that was no guarantee they’d stay free. Her grandmother, who made money selling crackers, also wanted to purchase the freedom of her children, but her mistress borrowed the money from her and never paid her back.

Her mother had died when the author was just six. Her grandmother was wet nurse to her mother’s mistress, so the two were raised as sisters. She was actually a kind slaveholder, but died when the author was twelve. Her new mistress was petty and mean, doing things like spitting in the slave’s food if her own dinner was late. Her master, Dr. Flint, would have the cook whipped if he didn’t like the food. Her mistress makes her walk barefoot, even when there’s snow on the ground, because she doesn’t like the sound of her shoes squeaking.

The autobiography goes into detail regarding the sufferings of slaves. Incidents of children being sold to different masters than mothers, masters fathering children with their slaves, and slaves being tortured and beaten nearly to death. We learn about skin exposed to scalding drops of cooked fat, a slave tied to a tree during a stormy night, a slave stuffed inside a cotton gin, and bloodhounds tearing flesh from bone. Some neighboring masters murdered their slaves without being punished for it.

Linda was raised by her grandmother. When she turned 15, her master who was 40 years older, started trying to seduce her. Since she was his property, he was insistent that she submit to him, he even threatened to kill her, but she refused. Her mistress, instead of protecting her, became jealous of her. To a female slave, beauty is a curse. It’s better not to be attractive. We learn her master is father to at least 11 slaves. Since a child inherits the position of its mother, the child of a white woman and a slave would be free. In fact, one of her neighbors did have a child with a male slave in order to infuriate her father.

Her grandmother ends up getting her freedom and lives in her own house nearby. She offers to buy Linda, but Dr. Flint refuses to sell her. Linda falls in love with a free negro and wants to marry him, but her master refuses. She then falls in love with a white man and gets pregnant by him in order to make Dr. Flint leave her alone, but he doesn’t. Instead, he uses her child as leverage against her. She almost dies during childbirth (the doctor “had learned to put up medicines, to leech, cup, and bleed.”), but manages to survive.

When Nat Turner’s insurrection happened, the slaveholders were worried about a slave uprising in their town, so they held a muster. They put on uniforms, bore muskets, and searched the houses of free blacks to remind them who was in charge. The poor whites, who didn’t own any slaves themselves, loved to have the opportunity to exercise authority over someone. They stole from the black people and planted evidence on some of them who were whipped “till the blood stood in puddles at their feet.” Some received five hundred lashes.

They allowed slaves to go to church after this so they could learn to be more obedient. The scripture expounded upon was Ephesians 6:5: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” She doesn’t know why God allows slavery, but supposes she’ll find out in the hereafter. Dr. Flint joins the Episcopal church. Linda hopes this will make him kinder, but instead, it made him meaner. At one point, he throws her down the stairs and she was so injured, she couldn’t even turn over in bed for many days. In another incident, he throws her little boy across the room, knocking him unconscious.

When she turns 19, she has a second child. She wasn’t allowed to watch her baby when she worked. The babe was left to wander around the yard on her own, crying herself to sleep under the house. When a snake is found under the house, Dr. Flint sends her baby to his son’s plantation to keep her safe. Even so, Linda would rather her children die then continue to be his property. Linda sneaks out at night to see her family, in spite of the danger from patrols.

She ends up running away and hiding in a friend’s house. Dr. Flint eventually sells her children and her brother, but she still has to hide. She moves from the house to a ship to a swamp and finally to a secret compartment in her grandmother’s shed. There’s some interesting details, like burning tobacco to keep away mosquitos. At one point, she disguises herself as a sailor and blackens her face with charcoal so she can move about freely in town.

She tells us of a Christmas tradition on her plantation. Every child rises early to see the Johnkannaus comprised of companies of slaves. Two athletic men have a net thrown over them covered in bright-colored stripes. Cows’ tails are fastened to their backs and their heads are decorated with horns. A box covered with sheepskin, called the gumbo box, is used as a drum, while others strike triangles and jawbones to provide music for the dancers. There’s also singing.

While Linda was hiding in her grandmother’s shed, slave hunters searched for her. Rats and mice ran over her bed. It was so drafty, she got frostbite during the winter. In the summer, the turpentine dropped from the roof onto her head. Her clothes would get wet during storms. One day, she heard her boy scream and looked through the peephole to see what happened. A dog had attacked him. She couldn’t do anything since she had to keep her presence secret, even from her kids. Her boy survived and the dog ended up being put down after it attacked another boy.

To make Dr. Flint think she had escaped to the North, she had a friend send letters written by her from New York. She ended up living in the cramped quarters of her grandmother’s shed for nearly seven years before finally escaping to the North. Even there she isn’t safe, since Dr. Flint and others continue searching for her. She nearly gets caught several times.

When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, obliging Northerners to return runaway slaves to the South, many families who had lived in the city for twenty years suddenly had to flee, leaving behind their homes and valuables. In some cases, a wife was surprised to discover that her husband was in fact a runaway slave who now had to continue running all the way to Canada.

Linda is finally free once and for all when Dr. Flint dies and his son agrees to sell her. True stories of slavery are harrowing, but we must do our best to never forget what actually happened. Don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t that bad.

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