Incidents in the Life
of a Slave Girl (1861)
 
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Anna Hall-Richardson and Angela L. Smith
Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education
Department of English & Theatre
University of North Carolina, Pembroke

I. WORTH BEING FAMILIAR WITH

Jacobs’s personal experiences, which are directly reflected in her text, reveal the most imperative background information for students to acquire—the historical context surrounding Jacobs’s narrative. As Geneva Cobb Moore explains in “A Freudian Reading of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” “Jacobs…narrates the tale of slavery approximately eighteen years after she had escaped slavery and Edenton in 1842, giving her the advantage of hindsight, eliding the slave girl Linda Brent as the presumed, but fictitious narrator” (28).

Exploring the issues surrounding American slavery and knowing the state of America during this era and the “business” of slavery in North Carolina better prepares students to read Incidents. In a letter written to The New York Tribune, Jacobs articulates her own experiences of the physical torture endured by slaves in North Carolina.

I was born in that good old State, and less than 20 years since I left it, and it is not that length of time since I witnessed there a sight which I can never forget. It was a slave that been a runaway from his master twelvemonths. After that time a white man is justified in shooting a slave, as he is considered an outlaw. This slave man was brought to the wharf, placed in a small boat, by two white men, early in the morning, with his head severed from his body, and remained there in an August sun until noon, before an inquest was held. Then he was buried, and not a word of murder or of arrest was heard. He was a negro and a runaway slave, and it was all right. It mattered not who murdered him—if he was a white man he was sure of the reward, and the name of being a brave fellow, truly.

In correlation with the U.S. History curriculum, understanding that slavery was a highly explosive issue in the rapidly expanding United States during the 1850s, when Jacobs was writing her book, equips students for their venture through the text’s historical context. Americans argued bitterly whether slavery should be allowed in new territories like California, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Compromise of 1850 sought to hold the Union together by designating California a free state, but it also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, which facilitated the recapture of runaway slaves. Because of the bloody confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery settlers, the Underground Railroad became a means for slaves to flee slavery in the North. Abolitionists also voiced their propaganda efforts, in which slave narratives such as Incidents played a crucial part.

Because the text holds various similarities and differences of reality and fiction, a brief biography of Harriet Jacobs assists the reader in understanding the parallels between Jacobs’s real life and that of her narrative.

Born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, Harriet Jacobs was virtually unaware that she was the property of Margaret Horniblow. Before her death in 1825, Harriet's somewhat kind mistress taught her slave to read and sew. Horniblow bequeathed eleven-year-old Harriet to Mary Norcom (Emily Flint in Incidents), her three-year-old niece. Because of her mistress’s age, Harriet became a slave to Dr. James Norcom (Dr. Flint), Mary’s father and an Edenton physician. Though barely a teenager, Jacobs soon realized that her master was a sexual threat.

From 1825, when she entered the Norcom household, until 1842, the year she escaped from slavery, Harriet Jacobs struggled to avoid the sexual victimization that Dr. Norcom intended to be her fate. Loathed by the doctor's suspicious wife (Mrs. Flint) and fearful of being sexually abused, Jacobs in desperation formed a covert relationship with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (Mr. Sands), a white attorney who fathered her two children. Hoping that by seeming to run away she could induce Norcom to sell her children to their father, Jacobs hid herself in a crawl space above her grandmother's house in the summer of 1835. She remained in that “little dismal hole” for the next seven years and kept busy sewing, reading the Bible, keeping watch over her children as best she could, and writing occasional letters to Norcom (Flint) designed to perplex him as to her actual whereabouts.

Knowing Jacobs’s background before reading the text will help students form a mental timeline of the events described in the narrative and also assists them in drawing parallels between characters in the text and those from Jacobs’s real life.

Finally, being familiar with the narrative genre of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl before reading the text certainly familiarizes readers with Jacobs’s style and the context of the narrative. Slave narratives are the dominant literary mode in early African-American literature. Thousands of accounts, some legitimate and some the fictional creations of white abolitionists, were published in the years between 1820 and the Civil War. These were political as well as literary documents, used to promote the antislavery cause and to answer pro-slavery claims that slaves were happy and well-treated. Most slave narratives feature graphic descriptions of the violent whippings and severe deprivation inflicted on slaves, attempting to appeal to the emotions and conscience of white readers. Like other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl chronicles the abuses of slavery, the slave’s struggle for self-definition and self-respect, and the vexing details of a dangerous escape. Jacobs’s story also underlines the unique problems faced by female slaves, particularly sexual abuse and the sorrowful separation of slave mothers and their children. Students will find that, because of its inimitable point of view and unique novelistic style, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has become one of the most distinguished and renowned slave narratives in history.

II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO

The literary elements and rhetorical concepts of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl are important to teach to N.C. secondary students, as understanding the literary elements ultimately will guide students through Jacobs’s text with greater ease and appreciation. When surveyed about teaching African American Literature, UNC-Pembroke service area teachers requested theme and subject matter. Hence, this segment seeks to inform teachers about these aspects of Jacobs’s text by enlightening readers as to how rhetoric shapes literary elements and by providing a sound understanding of the context of Jacobs’s text. The main literary elements that are important to teach are conflict, tone, symbolism, and theme as pertaining to the N.C. Standard Course of Study Competency Goals: “The Learner will critically analyze text to gain meaning, develop thematic connections, and synthesize ideas [and] interpret and evaluate representative texts to deepen understanding of literature of the United States.”

Since Jacobs’s text clearly expresses the traumatic, trying times of being a slave woman, awareness of the various conflicts presented in the text—character vs. character, character vs. self, and character vs. society—is important because North Carolinians have a direct relation to slavery through family lineage. Thus a personal connection can be made between the text and present-day students. Undoubtedly, Jacobs experienced conflict when writing the narrative (character vs. self), and she even explains that because her account will be truthful, she will be forced to tell of the events as they actually happened, even if that means risking the loss of readership (character vs. society). Furthermore, the account tells of numerous conflicts that Jacobs went through while she was a slave (character vs. character and character vs. society). One example of a conflict of character vs. society worth teaching to students appears in Chapter V, “The Trials of Girlhood,” which explicitly expresses Jacobs’s view of religion and racial equity. This is valuable to N.C. students because this region is considered part of the “Bible Belt” (see Appendix A). An example of character vs. character conflict is in the same section, and it concerns Jacobs and her grandmother. A multitude of other examples are noteworthy of teaching as well, so long as the students can make a personal connection to the plot through the teaching of the conflicts, which is possible if the students feel a direct connection to the conflicting elements through particular issues like sexual harassment.

Alongside conflict, tone is important for secondary students in North Carolina to know because slavery is virtually a taboo topic of discussion that often brings about bleak, dim, and even angry emotions for North Carolinians. In Incidents, not all aspects of slavery, through Jacobs’s eyes of Jacobs, are terrible. A passage worth discussion comes from Chapter XXV, “Competition in Cunning,” which Yvonne Johnson explains in “The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker,” as one particular point in the narrative when the tone shifts from ominous to proud and humorous: Jacobs tells of the time when she tricked Dr. Flint into believing that she had moved to the North, and she even goes to great lengths to prove this point, thus feeling amused that Dr. Flint actually believe the story (27; see Appendix B). On the other hand, the students can empathize with Jacobs and the other slaves in their readings of the text’s myriad examples of the slavery horrors.

While it is important to ensure that N.C. students understand the conflict and tone of Incidents, being familiar with the symbolism in the text is valuable because symbols of slavery surround twenty-first century students on a daily basis. For instance, Chapter XVI, “Scenes at the Plantation,” directly relates to modern-day symbols of still-standing plantation homes. Another example of symbolism is in Chapter XXI , “The Loophole of Retreat,”. This is a more abstract symbol for readers because they are forced into the heart of an innocent girl who describes seven years in the attic (see Appendix C).

Indeed, the “loophole” experience symbolizes the value of freedom, a vital value for secondary students because we as educators aim for our students to understand and internalize the importance of being allowed to walk freely on streets, freely attend public schools, and freely walk into any church, restaurant, or convenience store without any racial degradation. Other symbols within Jacobs’s text include Dr. Flint, who, according to Johnson, serves as a symbol of the slavery system, which is purely a means of allowing white supremacy, ethical and moral corruption, and inhumane treatment. Meanwhile, Aunt Martha embodies white female power (or white Southern wives) over black female power (or even Southern women), and this concept of imbalanced empowerment is worth grasping for the simple fact that N.C. educators aim to empower all students. Henceforth, allowing students to read a text like Jacobs’s in which power and equality are stripped away from certain races and genders is one method of enhancing the students’ drive to succeed.

III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS

The abilities of N.C. secondary students to understand the biographical and historical information, as well as adequately and appropriately identify and comprehend the literary elements within Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, are critical in enabling high school students to enrich their knowledge of N.C. regional heritage and African American literature. However, the lessons of Harriet Jacobs’s African American literary text go well beyond such educational aspects. Since high school students are continuously trying to find their own voices and attitudes, it is worthwhile to teach Jacobs’s voice, attitude, and issues as relevant to the students’ lives, so as to ensure that through the teaching of Jacobs, the students will be forever affected.

As educators, we realize that today’s students will soon be tomorrow’s employees and leaders; hence it is essential for the students to recognize the gravity of sexual harassment. “Africans in America: Judgment Day, Harriet Jacobs, 1813-1897” explains that Jacobs experienced harassment from the time she was fifteen. At that time, “Norcom began his relentless efforts to bend the slave girl's will. At first he whispered ‘foul words’ in her ear. As time went on his tactics became more overt...Harriet had a plan to disrupt his fight for sexual conquest: She had become friends with a caring white man -- an unmarried lawyer,” something she wrongly thought would cause Norcom enough jealousy that he would sell her. Thus, the harassment continued, forcing Jacobs to flee the horrific bondage.

Through teaching sexual harassment with Jacobs’s text, the students come to terms with the fact that sexual harassment has been around for more than a hundred years and will continue to exist unless proper measures are taken. Sexual harassment is quite common in schools, and incidents at every level, even elementary school, are reported. Furthermore, as a teacher, it is important that students can master several objectives within the sexual harassment mini-lesson: (1) understand what sexual harassment is and be able to recognize it; (2) understand how sexual harassment affects its victims; (3) know what they can do if they are the victim of sexual harassment; and (4) recognize the role they can play in eliminating sexual harassment.

Not only is Jacobs’s text a useful teaching tool for sexual harassment; it is also a viable resource when trying to teach high school students of the objectification and exploitation of women in Jacobs’s era that still occurs in today’s society. With the negative feminine portrayals in mainstream media (rap videos, billboards, television, and movies), the notion of sexual exploitation and its effect on Jacobs, as well as how it affects females today, are considerably important elements to internalize. As Jacobs writes in Chapter XVI, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (cit.) This passage embodies Jacobs’s most significant contribution to the literature associated with slavery—her interpretation of the emotional torture of female slaves. Because most slave narratives were authored by males, they focus mainly on physical pain rather than mental anguish. Jacobs tells her story from a female perspective, one in which she emphasizes the tortuous mental anguish she experienced, especially the objectification and exploitation placed on her by Dr. Flint. Jacobs portrays the emotional agony that only a female slave can experience—occurrences that were often worse than the physical abuse that male slaves endured.

The atmosphere of sexual harassment, objectification, and exploitation she describes confronts the students we teach. High school students today are bombarded with misogynistic images in all venues of media. In “The Exploitation of Women in Hip-Hop Culture,” the author, Ayanna, explains how hip-hop culture feeds sexist notions.

Hip-hop culture is frequently condemned for its misogynistic exploitation of women, but this misogyny has its roots in the culture in which we live…For young people that do not hold sexist ideals, mainstream hip-hop may influence them to do so as it spreads and continuously gains popularity. And others are directly and indirectly supporting an environment that allows sexism to continue.

In “Objectification of the Female Body and the Confines of Respectability,” Jennifer Springer discusses misogyny in music videos and how today’s women are playing into the social norms from long ago.

These male performers participate in reinventing a social hierarchy in which women are subjugated and men empowered. The woman's "bottom" becomes just an object to be pursued for male enjoyment. Interestingly, it is not the hunter's dance that is subject to criticism, only the hunted's. (cit)

High school students should understand that popular culture fuels misogynistic fires. The same fire that Harriet Jacobs battled over 150 years ago is still being fought by modern-day women.

The enduring understanding of misogyny and exploitation can be summarized in this one quotation from Chapter X, in which Jacobs writes: “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 to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another” (cit). Jacobs tells her readers that if one has never been powerless in the face of exploitation and abuse, one cannot possibly understand what she has been through. Although high school students realize that they are free from ownership and able to choose their destinies, the freedom Jacobs longs for is a freedom comprised of more than just the right to do as one pleases. Instead, freedom, in all its complexity, allows individuals to exercise their right to life, liberty, and private property. Indeed, understanding the basic human rights is a priceless lesson for America’s adolescents to learn.

APPENDICES

Appendix A

“She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.” (cit.)

Appendix B

“It was necessary to tell my grandmother what I had done, in order that she might be ready for the letter, and prepared to hear what Dr. Flint might say about my being at the north. She was sadly troubled. She felt sure mischief would come of it. I also told my plan to aunt Nancy, in order that she might report to us what was said at Dr. Flint's house. I whispered it to her through a crack, and she whispered back, ‘I hope it will succeed. I shan't mind being a slave all my life, if I can only see you and the children free.’

“I had directed that my letters should be put into the New York post office on the 20th of the month. On the evening of the 24th my aunt came to say that Dr. Flint and his wife had been talking in a low voice about a letter he had received, and that when he went to his office he promised to bring it when he came to tea. So I concluded I should hear my letter read the next morning. I told my grandmother Dr. Flint would be sure to come, and asked her to have him sit near a certain door, and leave it open, that I might hear what he said. The next morning I took my station within sound of that door, and remained motionless as a statue. It was not long before I heard the gate slam, and the well-known footsteps enter the house. He seated himself in the chair that was placed for him, and said, "Well, Martha, I've brought you a letter from Linda. She has sent me a letter, also. I know exactly where to find her; but I don't choose to go to Boston for her.” (cit.)

Appendix C

“Often I was obliged to lie in bed all day to keep comfortable; but with all my precautions, my shoulders and feet were frostbitten. O, those long, gloomy days, with no object for my eye to rest upon, and no thoughts to occupy my mind, except the dreary past and the uncertain future! I was thankful when there came a day sufficiently mild for me to wrap myself up and sit at the loophole to watch the passers by.” (cit.)

Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

"Africans in America: Judgment Day, Harriet Jacobs, 1813-1897." PBS Online. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2008 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2923.html.

Ayanna. "The Exploitation of Women in Hip-Hop Culture." My Sistahs: A Project from Advocates for Youth. Retrieved 10 Oct. 2008 http://www.mysistahs.org/features/hiphop.htm.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. New York: Modern Library, 2004.

Johnson, Yvonne. The Voices of African American Women: The Ue of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Jordan, Abner. "Ex Slave, 95 Years." Library of Congress. 10 Dec. 2008 http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/thinking-guide-slave-narrative/4616.

Moore, Geneva C. "A Freudian Reading of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The Southern Literary Journal 38:1 (2005): 3-20.

Springer, Jennifer. "Objectification of the Female Body and the Confines of Respectability." Medians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8:1 (2007): 93-129.

Anna Hall-Richardson teaches 10th and 11th grades at Whiteville High School in Whiteville, N.C. She is pursuing her master's of English education at UNC-P. Angela L. Smith is ...

© 2008 | Last rev. April 17, 2009