133 Introduction (2017)

Tucker Hayford, Paige Schoppmann, Katherine Whitcomb

Fortunate isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind when thinking of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl. Born into a life of slavery, Jacobs didn’t comprehend her circumstances until the age of six. Most of her closest companions died and she was sexually harassed by her owner until she had children with someone else and he sent her away to a life of hard labor. She fled the plantation, leaving behind her children, and hid in an attic for seven years before finding freedom in New York in 1842. Perhaps, however, the one place where a word like fortunate could fit in is in the fact that she was able to escape and tell her story. Incidents was published in 1861, just as the Civil War was getting underway, which was the perfect time to lay out the horrors, abuse, and dehumanization that had been faced by slaves for the better part of a century.

Jacobs’ story was unique also in the sense that it provided one of few female perspectives on slavery. Her narrative stands up and voices a part of slavery that most people aren’t as familiar with: the female slave’s struggle. The book recounts instances of sexual abuse by slave owners as well as the trauma that comes with a mother separating from her children, and much more. Though a pseudonym – Linda – is used, it’s clear that Jacobs’ narrative is a biographical account of her gruesome journey within slavery, as well as getting out of slavery. The reader then sees, in great detail, what it took for slaves to find a sense of identity and what discrimination they endured. The readers are also made aware of the fact that a lot of them never got the chance, something that perhaps gained sympathy from those in war-fueled anguish.

We see through her story, truly how the slaves were treated through that time. We see something that history books can never amount to; her complete storyline allows us to feel emotionally connected to her as a character, and as readers take a step outside of the initial storyline, it’s a moment of realization that this is what America put people through during that time. She bares her soul to the world which shows all of the difficult decisions that we forced her, and many others, to make, such as leaving your children and constantly staying in hiding in order to secure their safety and future freedom. All of these reasons amount to why Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl should fully count as an American novel.

When scholars and and academics discuss American literature, they can’t do so effectively without analyzing every perspective on one of the largest American controversies: slavery. It’s a large part of American history, and to see every perspective on the issue is to understand how it, and the literature that revolves around it, would come to change the way we understand human rights and influence the politics of many countries around the world. America is a young country, but it’s a massive country. There are many things that America does well, but many things that America does not do well. In order to further progress as a country, we must ask ourselves of everything we’ve done in the past. We must see our faults and wear them on our backs as a way to remind ourselves where we’ve come from and know where we will never go. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an example of how we can do that. Learning about all different perspectives of this time period will further begin to allow growth and progress within our learning and later, our reality.

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Introduction (2017) by Tucker Hayford, Paige Schoppmann, Katherine Whitcomb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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