Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)

U.S.A. / 1861

“Reader, did you ever hate? I hope not. I never did but once; and I trust I never shall again. Somebody has called it "the atmosphere of hell"; and I believe it is so.”  


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an autobiographical account of an enslaved woman's struggle for freedom and self-actualization. She flees North Carolina and goes to hell and back trying to reunite with her children in the North. This book recounts the horrible abuses she suffered under her "master" and exposes the many hypocrisies of slavery.

I first read this book in middle school. Of course, as a subject of the racist American schooling system, I never received a classroom lesson about American slavery. Even though my K-8 school was 90% Black, the mostly-white teachers decided that St. Patrick's Day was more worthy of celebration. So in elementary and middle school, us Black kids were forced to get all dressed up and excited for St. Patrick's Day. But our American history textbooks and lessons never made any mention of our own history. (I can recall most of 7th grade history being an extended unit on Helen Keller). Thankfully, my school had a decent library. We got to take out books frequently. Thirsty for knowledge of myself and the world, I decided to use books to fill the wide gaps in our history lessons.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the first "slave narratives" I ever read. Growing up, I had somehow always known that my ancestors had been enslaved, but my knowledge of that topic ended there. When I was very young, my great-grandmother (b. 1936) used to take me outside in her garden to plant flowers and vegetables. As we dug holes under the Mississippi sun, she would always, always say: "I can't believe the slaves used to work in this heat! Just imagine us back then! Isn't that terrible!" Being so young, I didn't quite understand what she was saying. As I got older, it made more sense, and I realized that my great-grandmother's observations were the somewhat flimsy foundation for my understanding of what my ancestors really went through. However, other than those offhand remarks - and watching Roots and The Amistad - I had no idea what enslaved Africans really went through in this country.

Reading this book was such a profound moment for my young self because I got to hear directly from the mouth of a formerly enslaved woman. I also got to gain an understanding of the power of words, and learn how the telling of a story can shift the current of the world. This is such an important historical document. I'm so appreciative of Harriet Jacobs's foresight and courage. Thanks to her telling her story and her truth, little Black girls like me got to learn their own history for the first time. When we can't find what we need in the history books, or we don't get the truth from our teachers, we can turn to reassuring artifacts like this one. This is required reading.