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The Corrupting Power of Slavery

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    The Corrupting Power of Slavery

    Incidences in the life of a slave girl is an autobiography by Harriet Ann Jacob under the pen name Linda Brent. The book is written in first person narration and details the life of slaves and the torment it they had to undergo in the hands of the slave owners. It particularly dwells on the problems and struggles of a slave woman. In the preface to the book by the author he outlines the main aim of the book in the following sentences……

    Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl

    Incidences in the life of a slave girl is an autobiography by Harriet Ann Jacob under the pen name Linda Brent. The book is written in first person narration and details the life of slaves and the torment it they had to undergo in the hands of the slave owners. It particularly dwells on the problems and struggles of a slave woman. In the preface to the book by the author he outlines the main aim of the book in the following sentences. “….But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is…….” (Jacobs, 1862).

    Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813 to father Daniel Jacobs and mother Delilah who were both slaves. The mother belonged to a tavern owner called John Horniblow while the father belonged to a slave owner named Dr. Andrew Knox. Harriet’s mother Delilah died at around 1819 leaving her with her mother’s owner’s mistress Margaret Horniblow when she was only six. She lived with her mistress until she died when Harriet was about 12. According to the autobiography, Margaret Horniblow in her will directed that she be given to Mrs. Margaret’s five-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom which meant that Harriet and her brother, John S. Jacobs were to move into the household of Dr. James Norcom.

    It is the house of. Dr. James Norcom. That she meets with sexual harassment from Dr. James Norcom. She is forced to encourage a sexual relationship with Sawyer, a lawyer, with the aim of dissuading Dr. James Norcom. Who however refuses and even denies her the privilege of getting married.  And when she refuses his advances she is banished to a plantation where he ordered her to work as a field hand to punish her for her refusal.

    Key themes in Incidents include the economics of slavery (see the Critical Essay “The Feminist Perspective”); the quest for freedom; pain and suffering (physical and emotional); self-definition; self-assertion; community support and family loyalty (generally lacking in slave narratives by men); and writing as a means of freedom, self-expression, and resistance. Also significant is the issue of literacy, which was often used as a metaphor for freedom, because slaves who learned to read and write were often the ones who ran away. Note, for example, that the letters Linda writes while hiding in her grandmother’s garret play an important part in her eventual escape.

    Even though Incidences in the life of a Slave Girl is an autobiography, some people have questioned some facts about the verifiability of some of the events. In fact Harriet herself, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to have the book published, she realized that some of the events she describes in the book are hard to believe which made her write this captivating opening paragraph to her preface.

    “READER, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course….  ”

    Some other criticism concerning her book is the dates she gives as the time Mrs. Margaret died.

    Dessa Rose.

    This fictional slave narrative is based on two actual historical incidences. First  Dessa Rose, a pregnant slave condemned to death after leading an uprising of a group of slaves headed to the market for sale. But she is not executed until she gives birth.  Her delayed sentence gives her a chance to be interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, a writer, who was writing about slave rebellion.

    The second part is about Ruth Sutton, a white woman, who lives in an isolated farm in Northern Alabama after being abandoned by her slave-owner husband. She is reported to be giving shelter to run-away slaves. Dessa and her companion escape and find their way to Ruth’s place and the relationship between these two remarkable women starts. Their initial distrustful relationship develops slowly until they become united and find greater strength in being together and they form a steady alliance devising a bold scheme to win slaves’ freedom by aiding them to travel to the west. The story is an attempt to revise the two distinct historical incidences by presenting a face where the two women meet.

    The novel begins with the imprisonment of Dessa in a sheriff’s cellar. She is imprisoned for participating in a slave revolt on a slave coffle in which five white men are killed and Wilson, a trader, is maimed. It all starts when Robert Steele, the master of the farm orders the slaves to get to work and in anger attacks and kills Kaine, one of the slaves, when he hits him on the head by a shovel. Dessa responds by attacking Steele by trying to kill him also. She is however restrained and punished for doing so. She is beaten and sold to the harsh trader Wilson, who chains her on a coffle. While on the coffle (a chained gang of slaves being marched to the market), during a night rest, trader Wilson drags Dessa away and attempts to rape her, but she manages to escape after hitting Wilson with a rock maiming him. She also takes the key with her releases her fellow slaves who kill their white captors and escape. But because Dessa is pregnant she cannot keep up with the others and finally she is caught and taken to the cell.

    Because she is pregnant however, the execution of her sentence is delayed because they do not see why they should destroy a “perfectly good property” along with the mother. It is here that a writer, Adam Nehemiah, who writes about slave revolts, visits her to interview her on the slave revolt at the slave coffle. Her indirect efforts however thwart his effort to get the details of the revolt.

    When still in the cell a plan is hatched to rescue her, a slave named Gemina hands her a file which she uses to file away the chain on her legs. She is aided to escape to Ruth’s farm by Nathan, one of the slaves she had met on the coffle who had escaped to Ruth’s farm. When she reaches the farm she is already on labor and Ruth helps deliver her.

    Over time the friendship between Nathan and Ruth develop and he convinces her to join them in their plan to escape to freedom after raising the money to buy their freedom. She is to pose as a slave owner selling her slaves. After the buyers have bought the slaves and given her money, the slaves escape and return to her and they continue with the process until when they have raised all the money they require getting freedom.

    Dessa is however very skeptical about Ruth but they are bonded together after one of the hosts where they spent for the night attacks Ruth and tries to rape her to which they both successfully fend him off.

    On the supposedly last stay together in one of the hotels, Ruth asks Dessa how she would feel if she came to the west with them, to this Dessa runs out of the room and fall in the hands of Adam Nehemiah who has been trying to trace her all along. Adam is accompanied by the sheriff. Adam insists that Dessa is her slave and claims that Dessa has marks that prove that she is her slave. The sheriff assigns a lady, Auntie Chole, to go and examine and verify the claims. Dessa, knowing her guilt appeals to the lady that she is only sixteen years and has a child. The lady leaves without checking her and assures the sheriff that she has not seen anything on Dessa. Adam breaks down and even tries to remove papers that would help the sheriff verify his claims. The sheriff retorts that what he can see in the papers are just scribbles.

    While most of the events in the story are fictitious, they have been adapted from two true stories. The story of Dessa Rose and fellow abolitionist Miss Rufell.


    Jacobs, Harriet Ann, Lydia Maria Francis, Linda Brent. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Child. New York: Published for the author, 1862.

    Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: Berkley Books, 1987


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