Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chapters I-XVIII (pgs. 3-117)

Discussion Prompt

Slave narratives were the most widely distributed literary works by African Americans prior to the civil war. They tended to be published with a white audience at least partly in mind and with the intention of changing that audience's perceptions of slavery so that they might come to support the abolitionist cause. But, whatever their instrumental role in the abolitionist movement, narratives such as Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl stand as foundational works of American literature and serve to document the depredations of slavery and the resistance and endurance of those who were subjected to it.

Part of the work of the slave narrative was simply to get the implied white audience to see black people as human. The desire to deflect or deny the facts of American chattel slavery ran (and often still runs) deep with a white audience. So, typically (and this is the case with Jacobs), the ex-slave's narrative would be presented with a preface by a white abolitionist author: the imprimatur of white authority vouching for the veracity of black experience. In the case of Jacobs's Incidents, the narrative itself, which is true, is further framed in such a way as to resonate very specifically with its proposed white, female audience. Throughout the first half, Jacobs fights to maintain her chastity against the persistent sexual attentions of Dr. Flint. It's a narrative template, the chaste woman fighting off the sexual advances of a more powerful man, that can be traced back at least as far as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, an 18C English novel that was very popular in its day, and its use helps to highlight Jacobs's humanity and relatability to northern white women, counteracting the widespread narrative among whites that enslaved people were less than fully human, and that they were treated well under slavery. Jacobs, through this narrative technique, becomes relatable and therefore human to a white audience.

Yet, embedded within this narrative framing designed for white consumption is also a story of community among the enslaved and, more particularly, among the women within that community. These bonds of community exist even in the face of a power structure that deliberately worked to destroy families. Human attachment was undermined at every turn.

As Jacobs recounts (and we can see the direct effects of each of these facts in the narrative itself): because enslaved people were considered property, families could be broken up and sold, parents and children never seeing each other again—this fact could be used to punish and control; the same was true for husbands and wives—to marry, as enslaved people (assuming they were allowed to by their enslavers), was not proof against the husband or wife being sold; women could be forced to have sex with their white owners, and the children of these unions followed the state of the mother, and so were born enslaved. These children could in turn be sold away and often were. Finally, any enslaved person could be whipped or killed at any moment for any reason, to say nothing of the day-to-day psychological abuse and deprivation that prevailed. And yet, as we see in Incidents, Jacobs, her grandmother, and other members of her family found ways to preserve their humanity and their bonds with each other. The second half of the narrative will describe Jacobs's journey to freedom, and the story will move from one of endurance to one of triumph.

For this week, identify a moment of resistance in the narrative. Analyze a specific scene to show how Jacobs (or one of the other personages in the narrative) works to maintain her humanity, or that of one of her family or friends. How is she averting, circumventing, or redirecting the power exerted by Mr. Flint or one or more of the other slaveholders or white citizens? In what ways is this moment affected by the fact that Jacobs is a woman?

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