Teaching Guide: Exploring Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Compare the titles given to the 1861 US edition and the 1862 British edition of Jacobs’ book. What is the significance of the phrase “the deeper wrong”?
  2. Dr. Norcom’s advertisement for Harriet’s return in 1835 offered four times as much reward as this ad for Derry. Given the details of Jacobs’ life as recounted in Incidents, why do you think Norcom valued her so highly?
  3. One of the themes Jacobs describes in Incidents is the constant threat slavery posed of separating families (i.e. chapter three or Harriet’s conversation with Fanny in chapter thirty). Using her narrative and the illustration from Anti-Slavery Almanac, the drawing of the slave market, and the bill of sale for Margaret, explain why this was a powerful argument for the abolitionist movement.
  4. Jacobs describes not only her experience of sexual predation by her enslaver but, in chapter six, how common it was to see enslaved children with light skin, often nearly “white,” that were the products of these forced relationships. How do the photograph of Isaac and Rosa, the runaway slave advertisements, and the broadside advertising a slave auction reflect American anxiety about enslaved people with light skin tones? How might the photograph of Isaac and Rosa have increased white Northerners’ support for the Civil War and Emancipation in 1863?
  5. Francis Jackson’s letter recounts how Thomas Sims, who had escaped slavery to freedom in Boston, was re-enslaved under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law. How did the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law impact Jacobs, her children, and her brother? What does Jackson’s letter reveal about the tension between abolitionist communities and government power when it came to the lives of men and women who had escaped slavery?

Classroom activities

Jacobs and her brother John each wrote about their upbringing, enslavement, and escapes to freedom. Ask students to choose another figure in Incidents and write an account of the same years from his or her perspective. Students might select the grandmother Molly Horniblow, Dr. James Norcom, or one of Jacobs' children, Joseph and Louisa.

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