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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Dec 14, 07

really liked it
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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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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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.


message 2: by Alex (new)

Alex i recently read this book along with Frederick Douglass' in a book that included both stories alongside one another. Both are deeply tragic and enlightening. I actually only read Jacob's story because it was included along with Douglass's narrative. I had never heard of her before. Since, however, I question why she is not more known and mentioned as regular reading for students in school. Anne Frank lived in the annex for two years. Harriet Jacobs lived in the attic for seven!


Stephani To Alex:
It's sad that people are still just discovering the story of Harriet Jacobs, and yes her name should be as famous as Frank, Douglass and Booker T. Washington. I've read Frank and Douglass, but I've only read excerpts from Washington's memoir. Your review of it makes me glad I haven't read the whole book.


message 4: by Alex (new)

Alex Washington is an interesting and enigmatic character. The book is not my favorite, as you might assume from my review. However, I'm still quite interested in learning more about him. Since, I've read and reviewed the book, I have heard that he may have used his school, Tuskegee, as a hideout for black revolutionaries. If it is true, it sheds a whole new light on the book itself. The book was certainly a campaign to obtain funds and support from white audiences. Yet if it is true, that he used Tuskegee as a hideout, the book could have also been part of the cover-up to what he was actually doing. If that is so, then, in my eyes, that would make Washington, a genius. But who knows, it's still all very interesting.


Stephani It would be nice if the book is just a tool and a cover-up for revolutionary activities. That would be intriguing.


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