Stephani's Reviews > Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
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's review
Dec 14, 07

bookshelves: african-diaspora, memoir
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to learn about slavery from the "house negro" POV
Read in December, 2007

Next time you hear somebody going on about how the "mulatto" or "house negro" class in slave days were "privileged" and "got over" on the "field negroes," tell them to read this book. Sure, the "mulatto" or "light-skinned" slaves got to work in the house or were sometimes allowed to work away from the plantation in a trade and sometimes got to keep their own money. If they were really lucky, they might be taught to read on the sly.
However, these "privileges" were likely to be taken away at any momemt at the whim of a slaveholder: If they needed money, the slave could be sold away to less comfortable circumstances. Or a "nice" slaveholer could die, leaving the slave to someone not so nice -- someone who might want to sexually abuse the slave, for instance.
Sexual abuse of female slaves, especially house slaves, and the sexual hypocrisy of the times really makes this book stand out from, say, Frederick Douglass' narrative. Harriet Jacobs is so worried about people judging her for turning to another White man and having babies with him in the hope that it will make her evil lech "master" leave her alone. If she had succumbed to her "master's" lechery, she would have been viewed as just another slave woman forced to be a "bed wench." However, being a woman who chooses to have sex with a man (for whatever reason) upset her grandmother and put her at risk for people shunning her!
This book makes you glad those days are over for more reasons than one.
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Stephani I don't know anything about the overall historical record, but in Jacobs' book and in Jacobs' environment, the "lighter-complexioned" slaves were definitely the ones who worked in the house and had skilled positions and responsibilities (like her father). However, as I said, in the end, these slaves were not privileged at all; in fact this "favoritism" put them at serious risk of sexual assault and other forms of mental and physical abuse. In the house, on the farm, skilled laborer or field hand, no matter what complexion, there's no privilege in slavery.

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