Ryan French; Jenna MacKinnon; and Sara Worley
Biography of Harriet Jacobs
Harriet A. Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina on February 11, 1813. She did not know she was a slave until she was six years old. Jacobs hid from her master in a crawl space for seven years to avoid his sexual threats. She wrote the now canonical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861. Jacobs was the first woman to write a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. She passed away March 7, 1897 at the age of 84. Jacobs died before her narrative saw its peak popularity in the 1960s-70s.
This biographical information was found at: PBS
Chapter 11-22 Critical Questions
Gender, Religion, Motherhood and Power are themes that Linda comes face to face with in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Below are quotes relating to these themes along with questions. Use what you know about the text to answer the following questions.
- “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it far more terrible for women” (66).
How is gender represented in this quote? Find examples throughout the text that also suggest women in slavery suffer more than men.
- “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” (59).
Based on this quote, in what ways is religion manipulated toward the slaves in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl? Does this sort of oppression work on the slaves?
- “Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery” (54).
How does this quote introduce the theme of motherhood among slave women? What does it suggest about the internal battle a slave mother must face?
- “I tell what, Dr. Flint,” said she, “you ain’t got many more years to live, and you’d better be saying your prayers. It will take ‘em all, and more too, to wash the dirt off your soul” (70).
The slave owners have power over their slaves but not those who are free. How does Linda’s grandmother show power over the slave owner with this quote?
Compare and Contrast
Slave Narratives, Religion, and “Uncle Tom-ing”
Both Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Uncle Tom’s Cabin represent the atrocities of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by white, female author Harriet Beecher Stowe, is fictional. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, however, is a true account of black, female author Harriet Jacob’s life.
- In what ways does religion serve as a moral compass for the characters inIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What characters contradict their faith through their actions, and how does religion serve as a method of oppression in both novels?
- “Uncle Tom-ing” is a derogatory term used to describe someone of color who is seen as eager to gain the approval of people who are white. This term comes from the character Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who demonstrates extreme passivity in the face of slave cruelties. In what ways does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl reject passivity and “Uncle Tom-ing” in regards to slavery? In what ways does it perpetuate it?
The Heroic Slave vs. A Slave Girl
Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave is a fictional retelling of the story of Madison Washington, a fugitive who led a rebellion on a slave ship headed to New Orleans. While both The Heroic Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl have plots that drive toward freedom from slavery, the gender of the main characters make a difference in their actions.
- In what ways do Madison Washington and Linda Brent use gender to their advantage when resisting slavery?
- If their genders were reversed, would Madison Washington and Linda Brent be as successful in their attempts to escape slavery? Why or why not?
Analyzing time periods and historical artifacts in connection to a piece of literature opens up a new perspective on the text and the era. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was particularly timely because it was published at the start of the Civil War. The text offers the perspective of an enslaved woman of color searching for freedom. This made the content of the novel like fuel for the emerging fire that came with the Civil War. Not only does it show the atrocities that were being committed against women of color, it also shows that they were willing to grasp for freedom if it was near. Incidents illustrates that people of color were not content with a life of slavery. Rightfully, the black community wanted their humanity returned to them. Because of this perspective, it has gained a rightful place in the American literary canon. Americans reading the book could see how America SHOULD be – a land of the free – and compare that with reality – the opposite of free. The Civil War had the power to make that change. These ideas can be seen in other works times in history. Consider these critical questions to further understanding:
- How does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl relate to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl?
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in the same year (1861) as The Civil War began. How does the book demonstrate issues arising between the north and the south?
- Although Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was originally published in 1861, the book saw a major reprint in the 1960-70s. What was happening in the United States at this time that would cause the book’s resurgence and why?