Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs, Lisa Renee Pitts

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'The degradations, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe.'

Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in the American South and went on to write one of the most extraordinary slave narratives. First published pseudonymously in 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes Jacobs's treatment at the hands of her owners, her eventual escape to the North, and her perilous existence evading recapture as a fugitive slave. To save herself from sexual assault and protect her children she is forced to hide for seven years in a tiny attic space, suffering terrible psychological and physical pain.

Written to expose the appalling treatment of slaves in the South and the racism of the free North, and to advance the abolitionist cause, Incidents is notable for its careful construction and literary effects. Jacobs's story of self-emancipation and a growing feminist consciousness is the tale of an individual and a searing indictment of slavery's inhumanity. This edition includes the short memoir by Jacobs's brother, John S. Jacobs, 'A True Tale of Slavery'.

For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452652535
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 06/27/2011
Edition description: MP3 - Unabridged CD
Sales rank: 1,023,349
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) was born a slave in North Carolina and escaped to the North in 1842. Her autobiographical account of her experiences, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was the first slave narrative written by a women. During the Civil War, she participated in relief efforts around Washington, D.C., founding a school for freed slaves. After the war she remained an active advocate for equal rights for African Americans and an outspoken critic of racial violence. She died in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1897. Lisa Renee Pitts is an award-winning actress in theater, television, and film, as well as an accomplished audiobook narrator. She has been seen Off-Broadway, in Europe, and in regional theaters across the United States, performing leading roles in such prominent plays as A Raisin in the Sun, Doubt, Waiting forLefty, Valley Song, and Our Town. Her television appearances include The Shield and Law and Order, and she played the recurring role of Allison Sawyer on the hit family drama Lincoln Heights for the ABC Family Channel. Lisa's audiobook titlesinclude biographies, fiction, nonfiction and children's novels, including Pushkin and the Queen of Spades by Alice Randall, for which she won an AudioFile Earphones Award for excellence in narration. Other notable titles are Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza, Better Than I Know Myself by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, and My Name Is Not Angelica by Scott O'Dell. Lisa is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she received her B.F.A. in Theater Arts. She lives in Burbank, California.

Read an Excerpt

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Harriet Jacobs


Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3465-4



I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. In complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes. They lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment. I had one brother, William, who was two years younger than myself — a bright, affectionate child. I had also a great treasure in my maternal grandmother, who was a remarkable woman in many respects. She was the daughter of a planter in South Carolina, who, at his death, left her mother and his three children free, with money to go to St. Augustine, where they had relatives. It was during the Revolutionary War; and they were captured on their passage, carried back, and sold to different purchasers. Such was the story my grandmother used to tell me; but I do not remember all the particulars. She was a little girl when she was captured and sold to the keeper of a large hotel. I have often heard her tell how hard she fared during childhood. But as she grew older she evinced so much intelligence, and was so faithful, that her master and mistress could not help seeing it was for their interest to take care of such a valuable piece of property. She became an indispensable personage in the household, officiating in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress. She was much praised for her cooking; and her nice crackers became so famous in the neighborhood that many people were desirous of obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests of this kind, she asked permission of her mistress to bake crackers at night, after all the household work was done; and she obtained leave to do it, provided she would clothe herself and her children from the profits. Upon these terms, after working hard all day for her mistress, she began her midnight bakings, assisted by her two oldest children. The business proved profitable; and each year she laid by a little, which was saved for a fund to purchase her children. Her master died, and the property was divided among his heirs. The widow had her dower in the hotel which she continued to keep open. My grandmother remained in her service as a slave; but her children were divided among her master's children. As she had five, Benjamin, the youngest one, was sold, in order that each heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents. There was so little difference in our ages that he seemed more like my brother than my uncle. He was a bright, handsome lad, nearly white; for he inherited the complexion my grandmother had derived from Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Though only ten years old, seven hundred and twenty dollars were paid for him. His sale was a terrible blow to my grandmother, but she was naturally hopeful, and she went to work with renewed energy, trusting in time to be able to purchase some of her children. She had laid up three hundred dollars, which her mistress one day begged as a loan, promising to pay her soon. The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a slave is legally binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can hold no property. When my grandmother lent her hard earnings to her mistress, she trusted solely to her honor. The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!

To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts. My brother Willie and I often received portions of the crackers, cakes, and preserves, she made to sell; and after we ceased to be children we were indebted to her for many more important services.

Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early childhood. When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother's mistress was the daughter of my grandmother's mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother's breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food. They played together as children; and, when they became women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister. On her death-bed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her lifetime she kept her word. They all spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a slave merely in name, but in nature was noble and womanly. I grieved for her, and my young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and my little brother. I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress; and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free from care as that of any free-born white child. When she thought I was tired, she would send me out to run and jump; and away I bounded, to gather berries or flowers to decorate her room. Those were happy days — too happy to last. The slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel.

When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed in my heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me. My prayers were not answered. She died, and they buried her in the little churchyard, where, day after day, my tears fell upon her grave.

I was sent to spend a week with my grandmother. I was now old enough to begin to think of the future; and again and again I asked myself what they would do with me. I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind as the one who was gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for anything; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would be so. They thought she would be sure to do it, on account of my mother's love and faithful service. But, alas! We all know that the memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her children from the auction block.

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister's daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them." But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory.

She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed among her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother's children, and had shared the same milk that nourished her mother's children. Notwithstanding my grandmother's long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.


The New Master and Mistress

Dr. Flint, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my mistress, and I was now the property of their little daughter. It was not without murmuring that I prepared for my new home; and what added to my unhappiness, was the fact that my brother William was purchased by the same family. My father, by his nature, as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skilful mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common among slaves. My brother was a spirited boy; and being brought up under such influences, he daily detested the name of master and mistress. One day, when his father and his mistress both happened to call him at the same time, he hesitated between the two; being perplexed to know which had the strongest claim upon his obedience. He finally concluded to go to his mistress. When my father reproved him for it, he said, "You both called me, and I didn't know which I ought to go to first."

"You are my child," replied our father, "and when I call you, you should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water."

Poor Willie! He was now to learn his first lesson of obedience to a master. Grandmother tried to cheer us with hopeful words, and they found an echo in the credulous hearts of youth.

When we entered our new home we encountered cold looks, cold words, and cold treatment. We were glad when the night came. On my narrow bed I moaned and wept, I felt so desolate and alone.

I had been there nearly a year, when a dear little friend of mine was buried. I heard her mother sob, as the clods fell on the coffin of her only child, and I turned away from the grave, feeling thankful that I still had something left to love. I met my grandmother, who said, "Come with me, Linda;" and from her tone I knew that something sad had happened. She led me apart from the people, and then said, "My child, your father is dead." Dead! How could I believe it? He had died so suddenly I had not even heard that he was sick. I went home with my grandmother. My heart rebelled against God, who had taken from me mother, father, mistress, and friend. The good grandmother tried to comfort me. "Who knows the ways of God?" said she. "Perhaps they have been kindly taken from the evil days to come." Years afterward I often thought of this. She promised to be a mother to her grandchildren, so far as she might be permitted to do so; and strengthened by her love, I returned to my master's. I thought I should be allowed to go to my father's house the next morning; but I was ordered to go for flowers, that my mistress's house might be decorated for an evening party. I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach; presumptuous in him, and dangerous to the masters.

The next day I followed his remains to a humble grave beside that of my dear mother. There were those who knew my father's worth, and respected his memory.

My home now seemed more dreary than ever. The laugh of the little slave-children sounded harsh and cruel. It was selfish to feel so about the joy of others. My brother moved about with a very grave face. I tried to comfort him, by saying, "Take courage, Willie; brighter days will come by and by."

"You don't know any thing about it, Linda," he replied. "We shall have to stay here all our days; we shall never be free."

I argued that we were growing older and stronger, and that perhaps we might, before long, be allowed to hire our own time, and then we could earn money to buy our freedom. William declared this was much easier to say than to do; moreover, he did not intend to buy his freedom. We held daily controversies upon this subject.

Little attention was paid to the slaves' meals in Dr. Flint's house. If they could catch a bit of food while it was going, well and good. I gave myself no trouble on that score, for on my various errands I passed my grandmother's house, where there was always something to spare for me. I was frequently threatened with punishment if I stopped there; and my grandmother, to avoid detaining me, often stood at the gate with something for my breakfast or dinner. I was indebted to her for all my comforts, spiritual or temporal. It was her labor that supplied my scanty wardrobe. I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.

While my grandmother was thus helping to support me from her hard earnings, the three hundred dollars she had lent her mistress were never repaid. When her mistress died, her son-in-law, Dr. Flint, was appointed executor. When grandmother applied to him for payment, he said the estate was insolvent, and the law prohibited payment. It did not, however, prohibit him from retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that money. I presume they will be handed down in the family, from generation to generation.

My grandmother's mistress had always promised her that, at her death, she should be free; and it was said that in her will she made good the promise. But when the estate was settled, Dr. Flint told the faithful old servant that, under existing circumstances, it was necessary she should be sold.

On the appointed day, the customary advertisement was posted up, proclaiming that there would be a "public sale of negroes, horses, etc." Dr. Flint called to tell my grandmother that he was unwilling to wound her feelings by putting her up at auction, and that he would prefer to dispose of her at private sale. My grandmother saw through his hypocrisy; she understood very well that he was ashamed of the job. She was a very spirited woman, and if he was base enough to sell her, when her mistress intended she should be free, she was determined the public should know it. She had for a long time supplied many families with crackers and preserves; consequently, "Aunt Marthy," as she was called, was generally known, and every body who knew her respected her intelligence and good character. Her long and faithful service in the family was also well known, and the intention of her mistress to leave her free. When the day of sale came, she took her place among the chattels, and at the first call she sprang upon the auction-block. Many voices called out, "Shame! Shame! Who is going to sell you, aunt Marthy? Don't stand there! That is no place for you." Without saying a word, she quietly awaited her fate. No one bid for her. At last, a feeble voice said, "Fifty dollars." It came from a maiden lady, seventy years old, the sister of my grandmother's deceased mistress. She had lived forty years under the same roof with my grandmother; she knew how faithfully she had served her owners, and how cruelly she had been defrauded of her rights; and she resolved to protect her. The auctioneer waited for a higher bid; but her wishes were respected; no one bid above her. She could neither read nor write; and when the bill of sale was made out, she signed it with a cross. But what consequence was that, when she had a big heart overflowing with human kindness? She gave the old servant her freedom.

At that time, my grandmother was just fifty years old. Laborious years had passed since then; and now my brother and I were slaves to the man who had defrauded her of her money, and tried to defraud her of her freedom. One of my mother's sisters, called Aunt Nancy, was also a slave in his family. She was a kind, good aunt to me; and supplied the place of both housekeeper and waiting maid to her mistress. She was, in fact, at the beginning and end of everything.


Excerpted from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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“One of the major autobiographies of the African-American tradition.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Illustrated + FREE audiobook link + Active TOC) 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 479 reviews.
sybil_rising More than 1 year ago
I chose the book because it was a great deal, and I figured this is a topic I could definitely stand to know more about; but I was surprised to find that Harriet Jacobs was a woman I felt I could relate to, regardless of the centuries and culture gap between us. She writes with passion and intelligence, and her revelations of the cruelty of the slave trade are tempered with anecdotes of familial love and the kindness of others who are sympathetic to the plight of the slaves. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl reads as easily as Jane Eyre and if you are interested in narratives involving slavery, women in the 1800's, or simply a story about someone who clings to the hope of a better life and will suffer almost anything to achieve it, this book is worth your time.
Mummbles45 More than 1 year ago
Linda's story is one of the most inspiring stories that I have ever read. When I was done with this book I felt proud to be a woman of African descent. Though I still do not understand how something as foul as the institution of slavery could have been allowed to exist for so long, this story speaks of the unbreakable spirit of my ancestors, their unyielding drive to rise above their oppressors, their unwillingness to succumb if only in their minds and hearts to the absurd notion that they were just a piece of property. Linda's decision to focus on her children, educate them, and free them; her decision to let go of the unattainable idea of marriage in the presence of a predatory slave master speaks to her resilience, superb intellect, and the power of the human mind. This is an easy read though I had to stop a couple of times to wrap my mind around some of the atrocities being described.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! This is the third slave narrative I have read this year, and this is the most compelling and endearing by far! The novel intertwined the narrative voice of a slave woman with the sense of sentimentality that was predominant in novels of the period. I would definitely recommend this novel to other readers of ethnically-influenced literature.
Lexus More than 1 year ago
Easy read and very informative. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in America's past.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a book you can't put down. I was amazed how well written the book was. This is the true story of a women with integrity and decency who is forced to live a life of abuse, humiliation and fear. I gained an insight into slavery that I never had before.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the book. I think that is crazy how someone can go through so much hardship and still have the courage to write about it and share it with the world. I like the intensity of the book and the commitment she had for getting her children and herself free, and how she went about doing it, how she became involved with another white man to get him to escape her own master and get the freedom she dreamed of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I purchased "Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl" I did not know what to expect. From the first few pages I was impressed with how well organized and easy to read the Narrative was. I highly recommend this book not just for those interested in books focusing on African American Studies, but for anyone interested in reading an original story of a Slave girl living in the anteblellum South. If you like Frederick Douglass's Narrartive, you certainly find Harriet Jocabs just as fascinating.
Lady-of-the-Word More than 1 year ago
This book is written by a woman who although born a "slave" in America was determined to have freedom and equality for herself and her children. She suffered many hardships and acts of cruelty towards herself and her children but never saw herself as a "victim." Indeed, she saw herself as an equal to all other women and even to men! She was intelligent and blessed with wisdom and foresight and much of her life was spent trying to obtain freedom for herself and her children. This book is a "must read" for those who believe that slaves in America were treated as "children" and "family" by their masters. It is a strong reality check of what the truth was back then and gives insight into the strength and power of love for God, oneself and real family.
Tomika Roberson More than 1 year ago
This is a must read!!! I loved reading this book! It was very interesting to read how this courageous woman was willing to risk her life by standing up for herself and her children. She took great risks and came near death a few times to obtain her freedom; to live in a space where you are barely ble to move for as long as she did is an unthinkable act. She kept her faith in God and because of that she was able to obtain her freedom gor herself and children.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i had to read this book for school and i really liked it!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i had to read this for class i would read it again for leisure. the only reason i dont give it more stars is because the way it is written is more autobiographical though she fictionalizes her name so as not to point at her identity directly. but this is a great book about the life of a slave girl, right up there with douglas. though douglas's is better.
penned More than 1 year ago
what a mother won't do for her children. how very sad a story of life during slavery and the treachery that was bestowed on a race of people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very well written! It was a very sad story, and gave the reader insight into what it was like to grow up as an African slave in the South during one of the darkest times in American history. I would suggest to those who are interested in purchasing this book that they are at a more advanced level of reading. Great book!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as it gave me a better understanding of what atrocities and sufferings slaves had to deal with. Even when they risked their lives to travel up North, and when they arrived there they were still treated with such indignities. It was even more compelling at how a black woman at this time was able to put into words her story and to have it published; that was, at that time, unheard of. Especially knowing it was against the law for a black person to learn to read or write. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to get a better understanding of this horrific time in US history CL10801
marissajz More than 1 year ago
I truly treasure this piece. Harriet Jacobs is eloquent and altogether bewitching in her narrative. I could not put it down. This is for certain one of my favorite books of all time. For me, I found her tone, narrative, and description just right. It is an important book that I think should be required for middle school students to read.
LaToya Hall More than 1 year ago
I realy appreciated this woman's heart wrenching story. I had a hard time puting my nok down. THE ONLY COMPLAINT i have is that the copy was a bit bad. There were many mispelled word...I mean it was so bad that you really werent able to guess what the word was. Other than that I wouls recommend. I LOVE CLASSICS and am only sorry that I didnt read this sooner.
Sofia_NW More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed and it was one of the 1st books I got for my nook. I needed it to write a paper for school and usually books you have to read are boring. This one was really enjoyable. Just still need to work out how to cite this source from the nook.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a hard one to put down. As a mother, I could truly relate to just how powerful and motivating a mother's love for her children can be.
Evana More than 1 year ago
Harriet Jacobs writes to us from a place in history most of us have never been exposed to. Without such notable classics with which to enlighten our limited experience, none of us would be able to continue conversing upon controversial subject matter as we pull forward into this century. My immediate response when I turned the last page was...'oh, wish I had not read so swiftly!!'...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Human bondage is a scar on our nation¿s history. It tore through the land of America as wildfire would thrash ravenously through sun-dried hills during summer. Yet, despite the complaints of slavery sprinkled throughout the history books of our contemporary era, nothing can be a more wretchedly vibrant window into the procedure of slavery than a first-hand account. `Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl¿ has the remarkably real abilities of a fictitious time machine, transporting the reader back through the centuries to the desolate routine of one whose spirit has been tied by the will of another, an equal human. Throughout the course of the book, the reader is acquainted with the characters, and forms a virtual friendship with such heroes of the fictitiously represented past. A must read for those eager to view the past through real, human eyes, `Incidents¿ will forever grace your bookshelf with vivid memories, and the inspiring story of good finally triumphing over a heartless, evil grasp.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is such an exquisite read. I finished it in less than a day because I couldn't put it down. Marvelous!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lorianna1129 More than 1 year ago
Offers an insight on the slave's point of view. A bit hard to take in at times, though.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a great read! So enlighting and thankful!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a book that you well for sure pass the author on to your friends