The Complex Identity of Harriet Jacobs’ Autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by herself

Harriet Jacobs, an African American slave woman who painstakingly fought to gain her freedom, held reservations against writing and publishing her story. Within the preface she expresses concerns of inadequacy and addresses her audience to ask for understanding regarding the background of her circumstances. Her fear stems from the prejudice she personally faced as an African American, a slave, and a woman. The combination of the three categories of identification is complex in each respect, however Jacobs skillfully articulates her story in a way that can be universally understood. Through an examination of Jacobs’ style of writing, the time period in which she lived, and how she projects and proclaims her identity, a better understanding of why she composed her autobiography the way she did can be attained. It is through Jacobs’ autobiography that she asserts her freedom even further by declaring the identity and humanity she was denied during her time as a slave.

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Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina in about 1813. She was born into slavery and lost her parents at a young age, so she was as closely attached to her maternal grandmother as she could be in her circumstances. Regarding her childhood, she records that she “was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away” (Jacobs 889). She was fortunate to have a kind mistress who treated her well in her younger years. When her first mistress passed away, rather than grant her freedom, Jacobs was willed to another family member. Her new master and mistress were not quite so kind, and she suffered constant sexual harassment from an evil man who wished to corrupt her and assert his dominance. Deciding to take her life into her own hands, she starts a relationship with an unmarried white man, who sympathizes with her, impregnates her, and promises to grant her children freedom. After having her children, she makes another bold decision to run away from her master. She hides in her grandmother’s attic for seven years until she can finally be transported to the North. Just when she believes herself to be safe, the fear of re-capture by the Fugitive Slave law threatens her peace. Due to the kindness of a white woman abolitionist sympathizer, her freedom is bought at last. Her life and story of perseverance undoubtedly leaves a strong impression of who she was, what she believed, and the depth of her willpower by how she overcame her obstacles.

Jacobs’ story is unique in a couple of different ways. Firstly, because it was so well written some believed that she didn’t actually write it herself. For the time she lived in, it was common for white authors to write slave narratives, like Harriet Beecher Stowe for example. It wasn’t until an article published by Jean Fagan Yellin in 1981 called “Written By Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative” that the legitimacy of Jacobs’ authorship was resolved. Yellin utilizes her letters corresponding with her Quaker abolitionist friend, Amy Post, in order to prove Jacobs did in fact write her own autobiography, and it is not a fictionally based account like that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite a few thematic similarities. Yellin claims, “The appearance of Jacobs’ letters has made it possible to trace her life” (Yellin 480) and provides many excerpts from letters written by Jacobs, her associates, and friends in order to document the timeline and details of the creation of her autobiography. One interesting fact presented by Yellin is that initially Jacobs was in correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe to request that she write her autobiography as a narrative. Feeling a hopeful sense of camaraderie, Jacobs even asked if Stowe would take her daughter Louisa on a trip with her to England as a “representative southern slave” (482). 

The endeavor, however, did not end well as Stowe denied Jacobs’ wish to take her daughter, fearing, in her words, “that if . . . [Louisa’s] situation as a slave should be known, it would subject her to much petting and patronizing, which would be more pleasing to a young girl than useful; and the English were very apt to do it, and . . . [Mrs. Stowe] was very much opposed to it with this class of people . . .” (482). She also dared to question the validity of Jacobs’ story and proposed that it be used in her novel that she was working on, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Deeply insulting Jacobs, she is described as feeling “ . . . denigrated as a mother, betrayed as a woman, and threatened as a writer by Stowe’s actions” (482). Stowe’s attitude towards Harriet Jacobs and her “class of people” shows the depth of intolerance and prejudice that she encountered and, subsequently as an author, had to surmount. Yet, had it not been for her experience with Stowe, her decision to write her autobiography herself may not have been as strongly solidified.

In spite of the validity of Jacobs’ authorship being proven, the interpretation of her text has undergone conflicting speculation and criticism as well. Literary critic, Carolyn Sorisio, comments on the issue within her article “‘There is Might in Each’: Conceptions of Self in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself”. She identifies two common assumptions made by critics, the first: “To some, her document stands as the historical record of an individual slave woman, evidencing a unified ‘self’ who recorded her life for future generations” (Sorisio 1). She clarifies that this reading follows the typical outline and ideas of a slave narrative, proving humanity and identity based off of literacy and intellectual competency. The other view indicates, “By contrast, some critics read Jacobs’s work as a textual presentation designed to gratify the aesthetic and ideological expectations of white Northern Christian women. Rather than finding Jacobs in the text, they see a reflection only of bourgeois values” (2). Sorisio warns against extreme interpretation in this light because it errs by the implication of fiction over fact and questions the authority and authenticity of Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography. Critics could potentially read Jacobs in this manner because of her writing style, purposefully addressing the audience and therefore showing that she is aware of how they may perceive what she is telling them.

Even though there is conjecture behind Jacobs’s true intentions for her novel, she clearly states her purpose for writing her story within her preface. She writes:

I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. (Jacobs 887)

She expresses her true desire is to reach the hearts of white women in the North and evoke feelings of sympathy for those who are enslaved. Her goal is to make them feel strongly enough to, hopefully, move them to action and inspire change. Her cause is a noble one, yet she evinces both humility and shame for the act of writing down her history, revealing that she isn’t proud of some of her decisions and the situations she was placed in. The fact that she understands her audience and places importance on their comprehension emphasizes her advanced mastery of literary persuasion and application of elements of argumentation, ethos, pathos, and logos. Jacobs’ writing style proves that she recognized the need for balance between including enough shocking details to evoke sympathy and provide the reality of slavery, but not too much so as to disturb and horrify the reader enough to simply turn away. While this style of writing may be seen as manipulative, it is more suggestive of Jacobs’ concern for telling the truth well enough for it to actually be heard.

As an African American slave, Jacobs suffered much abuse and prejudice. It could be further argued that as an African American slave and female author she suffered on another level. Author of critical article “Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America: Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women’s Autobiographies”, Beth Maclay Doriani depicts this struggle, claiming that African American women authors such as Jacobs created a subcategory of the slave narrative. Although those who were enslaved typically encountered similar hardships, Doriani proposes that certain components distinguish a difference between male slave narrative and female slave narrative. For example, she explains a few of the dominant characteristics of male slave narratives, using Frederick Douglas’ account as an example. She applies words such as “self- initiating, self-propelling, and self-sustaining” (Doriani 203) to describe the way male slaves would illustrate their retaliation against opposition. 

Doriani aptly points out that Douglas demonstrates “self-reliance” as a defining factor of the male slave’s “manhood” in “his description of freedom in terms of the acquisition of literacy and the physical mastery over the slaveholder or oversee” (203). Essentially, he earned his freedom by becoming literate and physically domineering his “overseer”. The latter of these conventions was certainly not available to the slave woman, because though they were enslaved, they were still held to the established standard of “womanhood”. Yet, the concept of maintaining womanhood was a difficult one when the terms dictated by society was simultaneously applicable and non-applicable to an enslaved woman.

The ideal woman of the period was defined as “pious, pure, submissive, and domestic” (Doriani 204). In order to be considered a proper lady, it was essential to possess and exemplify these characteristics. Most women, regardless of race, aspired to achieve this ideal, but a conflict of interest exists for white slaveholding women. Doriani clarifies that “Women, to be ladies, had to have servants, according to the white southern ideal—thus slave women could never hope to reach the ideal” (206). Therefore, in order for slaveholding women to preserve their status, they had to deprive their slaves of their own womanhood and deny them the potential of ever reaching it. The nature of slavery not only refused women of their basic rights and appropriate treatment, but also, as Jacobs exemplifies within her novel, the natural possession of innate womanhood and consequently humanity and identity. Jacobs elaborates upon her experience with her “jealous mistress” (901), telling the audience that the unfaithfulness of the master of the house instigates a worse punishment for favored female slaves at the hand of the vengeful mistress. 

According to Jacobs, the female slave “is not allowed to have any pride of character. It is deemed a crime in her to wish to be virtuous” (901-902). The slave girl alone takes full blame and is condemned as impure rather than the master for his participation, and probable initiation, of infidelity. In the realm of a proper woman, it isn’t her or her husband’s fault if he is unfaithful, so it has to be the slave’s fault. Jacobs’ firm statement that it is a “crime in her to wish to be virtuous” absolves any discrepancy within the master and mistress’ marriage by displacing the issue onto a “scapegoat”. If a slave were considered virtuous or blameless, then the nature of the true guilty party would be revealed.

Since the personal characteristics of slaves couldn’t synchronize with the typical characteristics of womanhood, they needed to find some form of self-definition. Franny Nudelman, literary critic and author of scholarly article “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering” explicates Jacobs’ manner of self-definition by observing her actions and priorities. She denotes,

Recounting her decision to engage in an illicit sexual relationship in order to escape the abuse of her master, Jacobs asserts liberty and autonomy as alternative values for slave women, priorities that supersede chastity and submissiveness. By narrating her experiences in the context of sexual and domestic ideologies that discount or condemn them, Jacobs manages to articulate the limitations of those standards, thus redefining black womanhood and devising alternative narrative structures for describing black female experience. (Nudelman 940)

Instead of being a victim of circumstance and being submissive, Jacobs made a very difficult and mature choice at quite a young age. She was consistently pursued and harassed by her master, and he concocted many devious schemes to ensnare her. When faced with a situation that would ensure her destruction of womanly virtue, she made the choice to give herself to another man because “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion” (Jacobs 916). She temporarily gains control and freedom with the choice to be with this white, unmarried man. The fact that he is unmarried proves as an element of justification for Jacobs, because she would have felt far worse if he had been married, or she wouldn’t have had any other option but to accept her demise. Once again she addresses the reader and asks for understanding considering the difficult position she was placed in, “Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another” (917). She implores the audience to imagine themselves in her place and contemplate that issues of morality within slavery weren’t always easy to judge. She admits to knowing what she did was morally wrong, but it was a necessary choice the she made out of self-preservation from greater evil. Besides, the opportunity for a slave to make a decision for himself or herself was something that didn’t come up often, if at all.

Works Cited

  1. Doriani, Beth Maclay. “Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America: Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women’s Autobiographies.” American Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, 1991, pp. 199–222. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2712924.
  2. Gates (Jr.), Henry Louis. “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes.” The Critical Tradition Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David H. Richter, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1132-1144.
  3. Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. American Literature, edited by William E. Cain, Penguin Academics, 2004, pp. 887-952.
  4. Li, Stephanie. “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Legacy, vol. 23, no. 1, 2006, pp. 14–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25684492.
  5. Nudelman, Franny. “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering.” ELH, vol. 59, no. 4, 1992, pp. 939–964. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2873301.
  6. Smith, Barbara. “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” The Radical Teacher, no. 7, 1978, pp. 20–27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20709102.
  7. Sorisio, Carolyn. “‘There Is Might in Each’: Conceptions of Self in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Legacy, vol. 13, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25679182.
  8. Stover, Johnnie M. “Nineteenth-Century African American Women’s Autobiography as Social Discourse: The Example of Harriet Ann Jacobs.” College English, vol. 66, no. 2, 2003, pp. 133–154. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3594263.
  9. Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative.” American Literature, vol. 53, no. 3, 1981, pp. 479–486. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2926234.
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The Complex Identity of Harriet Jacobs’ Autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved December 5, 2022 , from
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