Authors: Harriet Jacobs
Table of Contents
INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL
Harriet Ann Brent Jacobs was born in about 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Her brother, John S. Jacobs, was born two years later. Their parents, Delilah and Elijah Jacobs, were enslaved, but they lived together as a family with Delilah’s mother until Delilah’s death. Harriet, then six, went to live with her owner, Margaret Horniblow, who taught her to read and sew. When Margaret Horniblow died in 1825, Harriet became the slave to Horniblow’s three-year-old niece, the daughter of Dr. James Norcom, a prominent citizen, who tried to force the teenaged Harriet into a sexual relationship with him. In an effort to fend off his advances, she began a relationship with another white man, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, and bore him two children, whom Norcom planned to send to a plantation with a reputation for treating its slaves especially brutally. To divert him, Harriet ran away, eventually hiding in a crawl space in her grandmother’s house where she remained for almost seven years before escaping to the North in 1842. She lived and worked in New York City and Boston until her freedom was purchased in 1852. In the meantime, Sawyer managed to purchase his and Harriet’s two children as well as her brother John, who went on to work for the abolitionist cause. Harriet Jacobs wrote
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
between 1853 and 1858, finally publishing it in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. John S. Jacobs died in 1875. Harriet Jacobs died in 1897.
Nell Irvin Painter is Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, where she currently heads the Program in African-American Studies. She is the author of several books, including
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol,
and editor of the Penguin Classics edition of the
Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
first published in the United States of America 1861
This edition with an introduction and notes by Nell Irvin Painter published in Penguin Books 2000
Introduction and notes copyright © Nell Irvin Painter, 2000 All rights reserved
“A True Tale of Slavery” was published serially in
The Leisure Hour,
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.
Incidents in the life of a slave girl / written by herself, Harriet Jacobs.
With A true tale of slavery / by John S. Jacobs ; edited with an introduction and notes by Nell Irvin Painter.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
Includes bibliographical references
eISBN : 978-1-101-12807-7
1. Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897. 2. Jacobs, John S.,
1815-1875. 3. Staves—United States—Biography. 4. Women slaves—
United States—Biography. I. Painter, Nell Irvin. II. Jacobs, John S., 1815-1875. True tale of slavery. III. Title: True tale of slavery.
IV. Title. V. Series.
E444.J17 A3 2000b 305.5’67’092—dc21 [B] 99-055803
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LINDA: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, seven years concealed in Slavery, Written by Herself
(1861), the best-known nineteenth-century African-American woman’s autobiography, makes a marked contribution to American history and letters by having been written, as Jacobs stressed, “by herself.”
Many other narratives by women who had been enslaved (for example, Sojourner Truth) had been dictated to amanuenses whose roles diluted the authenticity of the texts.
Jacobs not only wrote her own book, but as an abolitionist and ardent reader, she knew the literary genres of her time. Describing an African-American family whose members cleave to one another against great odds, she skillfully plays on her story’s adherence to and departure from the sentimental conventions of domestic fiction. In so doing, she used its difference to a woman’s advantage. Her self-consciously gendered and thoroughly feminist narrative criticizes slavery for corrupting the morals and the families of all it touched, whether rich or poor, white or black. She lays the groundwork for the analysis of black womanhood.