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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Primary Source Set

In 1861, Harriet Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an account of her experience of enslavement in Edenton, North Carolina. Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent and changed all of names in the book to protect the identity and safety of her family. Incidents soon became one of the most widely read slave narratives written by a woman. Jacobs used the book to highlight the unique cruelties of slavery experienced by women, including sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence.

As a teenager and young woman, Jacobs was subjected to violent sexual advances by her married enslaver Dr. James Norcom. To prevent her victimization by Norcom, Jacobs sought out a relationship with another white man, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, with whom she had two children. In order to escape and save her children from a future of enslavement, Jacobs ran away by faking her escape to New York. Meanwhile, she hid in a crawlspace above her grandmother’s shed for seven years, where she could continue to watch from afar as her children grew up (they were eventually sold by Norcom and granted relative freedom by their father). In 1842, Jacobs escaped to the North, where she reunited with her children, became acquainted with abolitionist circles, and eventually wrote her autobiography in her free time outside of her work as a caretaker.

For northern readers and especially women, Jacobs’ book was groundbreaking in its explicit and honest account of the prevalence of sexual relationships forced upon enslaved women by white men, the constant threat of separation among enslaved families, and the pain and fear inherent in raising children who legally belonged to someone else.

Additional resources for research

  1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, full text and related documents, Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill.
  2. Runaway advertisement for Harriet Jacobs from American Beacon, July 4, 1835, Digital History.
  3. The Young White Faces of Slavery,” The New York Times Disunion blog.

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