Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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The issue of slavery in the 1800’s had the means of being very brutal and carried dehumanizing factors that affected the lives of many men, women, and children who were colored. The autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, highly demonstrated the cruelty slaveowners exhibited towards their slaves, whom they saw as merely just property, and discussed the numerous hardships slaves were forced to endure.

Even though she was born into slavery, Harriet Jacobs was fortunate enough to partake in what one might call a happy childhood. She herself admitted that “though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise” (11,12), implying that Harriet was fortunate enough to not be mistreated during her childhood and had some sort of family figure in her life, whether it be her parents, who died when she was young, or more importantly her grandmother, who constantly provided her with guidance and support. For many slaves, including Jacobs as she discovered once she got older, life was constantly a fight between life and death. The many struggles that slaves faced resulted in constantly thinking that “death is better than slavery” (Jacobs 96) and was a repetitive idea that revolved around the lives of the enslaved. Harriet emphasized that as a slave, they were “entirely unprotected by law or custom… [and] entirely subject to the will of another” (86), meaning they had no sense of security or even a slight taste of freedom throughout their servitude. 

Jacobs also mentioned that while slavery was excruciating for men, it was “far more terrible for women” (119). Not only were women put to work just as hard as men were, they were also forced to endure harsh punishments and partake in whatever deeds their masters desired. Harriet had a significant understanding of this as she experienced it all throughout her teenage years. From continuous sexual advances from her master, to putting herself in an intimate relationship with another man for a slither at a chance to be free and watching her children become slaves simply because they had to take the fate of their mother. Those few who were fortunate enough, specifically Harriet’s grandmother, even went as far as to working endlessly as an attempt to save up money to buy their children back. Not to mention, the word “buy” was consistently used throughout this reading. Slaves had no choice but to think about themselves as property, and while in the hands of vicious masters, they repeatedly wished someone else would buy them to avoid further maltreatment.

Many slaves were relentlessly faced with cruelties from not just their masters, but any white persons in the country. Every year, on New Year’s Day, slaves and their children were auctioned off to slave traders. This day was dreadful for slaves who had become mothers, as they helplessly watched their children being taken from them. Harriet specifically mentioned a woman, who had seven children that were all sold and taken away from her that day. Slave traders indeed showed no form of compassion towards slaves and their children. The woman “begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them” but unfortunately, he refused because he knew “he could sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price” (Jacobs 27). Most slaves also were hardly given much to consume on a daily basis, but there were those few who were brave enough to take a chance at stealing some food for the sake of survival. Those that were caught faced severe punishment, as Jacobs discussed about a master as cruel as they come, and that a slave “who stole a pig from this master, to appease his hunger, was terribly flogged” (73). 

Jacobs herself also experienced many cruelties throughout her years as a slave. Harriet had to survive years of anguish from her master’s advances towards her and had no means of defending herself. At an attempt to outsmart her master, Dr. Flint, Jacobs reluctantly pursued an intimate relationship with another white man and soon bore two of his children. Unfortunately, Dr. Flint refused to sell her or her children and constantly reminded Jacobs that her children were “an addition to his stock of slaves” (Jacobs 94). Many times, throughout the infancy of her first born, Harriet found herself wishing for her baby to die, as she could never forget that he was a slave and felt uneasy about allowing him to live a life filled with servitude (Jacobs 96). This highlights the extent of how dehumanizing slavery was to those who fell victim to it solely because of their skin color and how they greatly believed that death was a better fate than a chance of living.

For most of the slaves, the only way of surviving with their bondage was to simply obey their masters’ orders and comply with what was expected from them. They were smart enough to take their punishments and cruel treatments as they came, since they knew they were not allowed to fight back, or else circumstances would be far worse for them. It was rare that slaves tried to escape from their master’s grasp because of the horrid stories they would hear about those that fled to the North. Slaveholders would infiltrate these lies into their slaves’ heads to encourage them that they were safer in their hands. Harriet discussed a young man named Benjamin, who she thought of as a brother, “with a spirit too bold and daring for a slave” (29). During an altercation with his master, Benjamin “had thrown to the ground his master – one of the richest men in town” (Jacobs 33), and soon feared for his life. It was rare for slaves to take action and defend for themselves against their masters, and when Benjamin tried to escape out of fear, he failed and was later imprisoned. When offered to attend back to his master, he strongly refused, symbolizing how dreadful slavery was and that being imprisoned with nothing but rags and scraps of food was preferable than the conditions he faced with his slaveholder.

Longing for the so-called freedom in the North, once Harriet arrived, she realized it was not as free as she expected. She was quick to observe that though the states in the North were labeled as free, they strongly enforced segregation laws and did not hesitate to discriminate against people of color. Harriet became aware of this on a train in New York as she was told that “they don’t allow colored people to go in the first-class cars” (Jacobs 247). Jacobs was rather stunned by this and dismayed at the fact that the North mimicked the customs of slavery in the South (Jacobs 248). While in Albany, New York, Harriet was victim of yet another act of discrimination; however, this one came from a colored man. Jacobs was appalled at his actions when he aggressively addressed to her “‘Get up! You know you are not allowed to sit here,’” but she remained in her place and refused to move (Jacobs 264). When glancing around to see if any other nurses were treated the same way, she realized that “they were all properly waited on” (Jacobs 264). Due to the fact that a colored man was enforcing this exclusion of another person of color, it is clearly seen how discriminative the North was and how it deprived those of color from basic freedoms, such as not being able to sit where they desired or attend a public space intended for whites. The many behaviors of discrimination and segregation Harriet Jacobs faced while in the North leads to the awareness that the North functioned as an apartheid society ruled by white supremacy instead of being the free land many hoped to reach.

Despite the fact that both the North and South believed that the United States was a “white man’s nation” and strongly integrated the belief that colored people were inferior, the northerners were deemed to be less cruel than those in the South and still took a stance at fighting to free the enslaved. A large number of white northerners felt threatened by the slaves and perceived that slavery was jeopardizing their liberty as workers. In reality, it can be understood that the North was not actually fighting to free the slaves, but moreover they were likely fighting over concern for their welfare and to preserve their prosperity as workers.

Throughout Harriet Jacob’s narrative, it is commonly conveyed how mistreated slaves were and the many hardships they had to endure during their servitude. Even while fleeing to the free North, people of color were not allowed to live as free persons and were not given the features of a free life due to the idea that colored people were inferior in America.

Works Cited

  1. Harriet Ann Jacobs.Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl., https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html.
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Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved June 24, 2024 , from

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