Harriet Jacobs’s Experiences as an Enslaved Black Woman


In her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs delves into the horrors of being a female slave in antebellum America. Her powerless position and the fact that she is a girl shape a variety of her dreadful experiences described in this autobiographic work. Harriet’s inability to marry a freed Black man, having no protection against sexual abuse from the master, and being perceived by the master’s wife as a rival become her everyday reality because of these characteristics.

No Right to Marry a Person of One’s Choice

As a young enslaved woman, Harriet has very limited options when it comes to marrying a man of her choice, and Dr. Flint’s power over her plays a central part in this challenging experience. Harriet develops romantic feelings for a colored man born free, and her lover wishes to marry her when they become very close emotionally. Realizing that she is a slave and that “the laws give no sanction to the marriage of such,” Harriet understands that she has no right to become a happy wife (Jacobs 58). The only decision for Harriet’s lover is to save enough money and buy the girl, but Dr. Flint becomes furious after learning about Harriet’s plans and love for another man.

Sexual Harassment and Powerlessness

As an enslaved Black person, Miss Jacobs is regarded as a property and a helpful resource, but the fact that she is a young woman makes her encounter very specific types of offenses, such as sexual harassment. In the chapter “The Trials of Girlhood,” Jacobs shares her unpleasant discoveries regarding growing up in slavery as a girl and dealing with the master’s unwanted attention. Having entered their teenage years, the author realizes that her being “a property” also includes tolerating the master’s “foul words” that he whispers in her ear and complying with much more disgusting demands (Jacobs 44). As a very young girl, she finds herself in a difficult position, in which almost every reaction to this attention will be held against her. If she accepts such behaviors with an explicit protest and righteous rage, Dr. Flint will find several ways to punish and hurt her. Another available option for Harriet is to remain silent and be nice around the master due to the fear instilled in her. This, however, could be interpreted by others as her approval of the relationships existing between them.

The inability to choose the right way to react to harassment affects Harriet due to her being a woman and society’s attitudes to relationships between the sexes, but her legal status exacerbates it even more. As an individual born into slavery, the author remains extremely vulnerable and simply has no levers of pressure to seek protection and stop the master’s inappropriate behaviors. Understanding that no help is within reach, Harriet is in anguish over the fact that “there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death” (Jacobs 45). Harriet’s vulnerability in this situation comes from two distinct sources, such as her biological sex which makes it challenging for her to resist the master physically and be a rightness slave.

Poor Relationships with Upper-Class White Women

Harriet’s poor interpersonal relationships with white women, for instance, Mrs. Flint, serve as another example of how her race and gender shape her everyday experiences. In the situation where Dr. Flint starts to demonstrate his unhealthy interest, Harriet has to tolerate poor treatment from his wife, who is going mad with jealousy. Unjustified hatred because of jealousy affects Harriet psychologically to a great extent. As a teenage girl that is forced to spend a lot of time with Dr. Flint under different pretexts, she is perceived by Mrs. Flint as an allurement for her husband just due to being a young woman. Despite knowing that it is her spouse’s nature that causes her fears, Mrs. Flint does not feel any empathy for Harriet, whereas the latter treats her mistress with respect (Jacobs 49). Similar to many women, Mrs. Flint blames Dr. Flint’s behaviors and infidelity on another woman that she perceives as a threat to her marriage.

Harriet’s enslavedness shapes the development of her relationships with the white mistress to a great extent. As a powerless individual, she has no alternative to bending to the will of her jealous mistress, whose hatred and suspicion grow progressively. Although Dr. Flint does not allow his wife to punish Harriet physically, Mrs. Flint never misses a chance to humiliate her, at least verbally, which makes the teenage girl feel disappointed and even intimidated. From Harriet’s perspective, the mistress could act more chivalrously by taking pity on the victims of her husband’s lust and taking sides with them. However, in reality, Dr. Flint’s wife seeks opportunities for exercising her power over Harriet and controlling her every step, thus making the girl “fearful” for her life (Jacobs 54). If Harriet was a free woman or an enslaved man, getting into the described situation would be unlikely.


To sum up, Jacobs’s book exemplifies the horribleness of living in slavery for a young woman in multiple ways. Harriet’s life is shaped by her social position and gender, limiting her right to her own body and engaging in relationships with men that could make her feel safe. In her owner’s house, she has to live in a predicament, trying to protect her sexual integrity from the master while also dealing with his wife’s acute jealousy.

Work Cited

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself: Electronic Edition. Edited by Lydia Maria Child, Thayer & Eldridge, 1861. DocSouth Books.

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