Harriet Jacobs’ sounds off on slavery, abolitionism, sexual harassment before the Civil War in her singular publication, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” publication date 1861. Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. Jacobs lost both her parents as a child; her mother died when Jacobs was six, and her father died when she was twelve. Jacobs grew up in the home of her mistress and later went to live with the Norcom family. In her early teens, she became bate for sexual harassment by Dr. James Norcom. To derail his advances, Jacobs started a relationship with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried white neighbor and lawyer, with whom she had a son and daughter.
Norcom persisted with his sexual advanced, and Jacobs sought refuge in the attic of her grandmother’s house. The attic was nine by seven feet and three feet high. In the attic she studied the Bible, sewed clothes, and watched over her children. In 1842, Jacobs escaped to New York. However, Jacobs remained under threat of recapture and could potentially be forced to return to North Carolina. When she was forty, Jacobs freedom was secured when a sympathetic Northern friend bought her from the Norcom family. In 1850, Norcome had died and immediately freed Jacobs.
In the 1850s, Jacobs starts on the composition of her life story; a process detailed in a series of letters to Amy Post, a Quaker abolitionist. Jacobs was active in antislavery activity and agitation. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was privately printed and published in 1861, just as the Civil War began.
Reason for writing “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself” was her “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, suffereing what I suffered, and most of them far worse” (885-886). As well, her call to action was so that “No fugitive from Slavery shall ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty” (889).
Jacobs gives intimate sexual details of her day-to-day experiences. Depicting Norcom as “Dr. Flint” and Sawyer as “Mr. Sands.” The author’s name is Harriet Jacobs, but she wrote under a pseudonym Linda Brent, an effort to veil her identity with its harrowing sexual history.
Cain, William E., “American Literature,” Volume 1, Penguin Academics, Ed. William E. Cain, Wellesley College, Copyright 2004 by Pearson Education Inc., Print.