“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” Book by Harriet Jacobs


Slavery and the struggle for freedom by African Americans have been commonly debated topics for centuries. However, based on the general knowledge known by lots of people regarding these issues, it is clear that the constitution of the United States greatly aimed at fulfilling its promise as well as improving its standards (Watkins, 2016). The book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs provides an insight into how brutal and terrifying the experience of a black female slave in the United States was. The paper analyses the book and a number of sources to investigate the topic of sexual harassment and abuse of black women by their masters.

The Early Life of Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Ann Jacobs was the first African American to publish an autobiography about slavery, motherhood, and freedom. She wanted to write about the effects of slavery on black females. She used the pseudonym Linda Brent to keep her identity a secret. In the time the state laws and the South made it illegal to teach the enslaved people reading and writing, Harriet planned to reveal her story. She was born in the Eden town of North Carolina in 1813 (Jacobs 36). Despite the prohibition, Harriet’s first owner, who was a daughter of a tavern-keeper, taught her to sew, as well as to read and to write. Due to such prohibition, most of the slaves were illiterate (Tartt 14). This greatly hindered the abolishment movement that needed the support of the masses.

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Sexual Abuse by Dr. Norcom

Later, when Harriet Jacobs was 12, she became a house slave, whose main job was to cook and clean for her master, Dr. Norcom, and his family. Although Dr. Norcom was a respected and adored member of the white community, he, as many maters of the time, abused black women sexually. Hence, since the age of 12, Harriet Jacobs started experiencing continuous sexual harassment and rape. As she recalls in her book, “Even the little child will learn that if God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse” (Jacob and Adams 51). In addition, Harriet knew that the doctor was the father of eleven slave children. Those children were sold off, as it was a common practice among slave owners. The rates of interracial children born were high due to the rape of black female slaves, yet white men were not punished for their crimes. Instead, courts records of the time point that the judges often say that there is no such thing as the rape of a black woman.

The history of this abuse continued in Harriet’s life for several decades.

“My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. He peopled my young mind with unclean images such as only a vile monster could think of. He met me at every turn, reminding me that I belong to him and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him” (Jacob and Adams 61).

Hence, Harriet was looking for a way out of the house and out of slavery. She saw a chance in the local 30-year-old lawyer Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, who expressed concern about her. Within a year of starting her relationship with him, Harriet gave birth to a son. However, by law, her child was owned by the same owner that a mother or father.

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Separation of Slaves’ Families

Enslaved families were similarly alienated for inheritance when their possessor deceased or due to the fact that possessors’ adult kids moved away to create new lives. Some of these decisions were beyond the control of the persons whose lives affected many. At some point, enslaved women or men pleaded with one another to buy their spouses to evade separation. The separation of the family through the sale was a continuous danger (Drake 82). Enslaved persons stayed with the unending likelihood of separation through the sale of one or more family members. A wealth of slaveowners lay principally in the persons they owned; thus, they regularly sold and bought persons as funds warranted.

In addition, enslaved persons were not permitted to legally get married in any American colony or state. State and colonial laws treated them as commodities and properties, not legal human beings who could enter into agreements, and marriage is considered as a legal contract (Drake 102). This denotes that until the end of slavery in the United States, many African Americans were not permitted to legally marry.

The separation of families was a common experience during the times of slavery. For example, in the case of Frederick Douglass, the effect of servitude on his family was adverse (Douglas 71). Douglas never identified his father but lived with his grandmother, whilst his mother existed and worked far, walking to see him late at night. In his fight against slavery, he proposed that slaveowners intentionally alienated kids from their parentages to round the expansion of fondness among them. Markedly, the higher maintenance of slaves at the expense of giving birth and taking care of slave kids was an investment in offering and expanding the needed supply of labor.

The Concealed Years

Due to such reasons, when Harriet gave birth to her second child from Samuel Sawyer, she was in danger of separation. Although the lawyer offered to buy the children, Dr. Norkom did not only refuse but took it personally, as he viewed Harriet and her children as his property. He threatened to send Harriet’s children to his plantation that was known for brutalizing slaves. Therefore, the only way to save the children was to leave them, and Harriet had to flee from the house to her grandmother’s house in Eagleton.

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The grandmother was a free woman who could offer a permanent hideout in a tiny space beneath the roof of her house (Jacob and Adams 131). The place of her stay was only 9 feet by 7 feet and 3 feet at the highest point. During her hideout, she received the news that Sawyer had bought her children and managed to let them live in their great-grandmother’s house. Since then, Harriet spent her years watching her children playing outside from tiny holes that she bored. Her concealed lifestyle lasted for seven years until she got a chance to leave on the boat to Philadelphia, where she managed to gain freedom.


During the slavery era, Black people were supposed to till the land or carry out other menial duties within the companies. The work was strenuous as it required a lot of energy since the work was manual. The life of female slaves was also hardened due to the common practice of sexual abuse and rape by their masters and further separation from their children, who were sold to different owners. The “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs is a unique insight into the misery that black women had to face. Due to her ability to read and write, she managed to leave an important autobiography that describes her young years, motherhood, and her way to freedom during slavery.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Yale University Press, 2016. Web.

Drake, Kimberly. “Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender, and Identity in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.” Melus, vol. 22, no. 4, 1997, 91-108.

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Jacobs, Harriet, and Julie R. Adams. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. ProQuest LLC, 2002. Web.

Jacobs, John S. A True Tale of Slavery. Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003. Web.

Tartt Ruby Pickens. “Emma Crockett Livingston, Alabama”. The American Slave, vol. 1, no. 1, 13-16. Web.

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