illustrated portrait of main character Linda Brent

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs
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How did the laws and social customs impact the lives of enslaved blacks and free blacks in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

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Harriet Jacobs, or Linda as she calls herself in the text, grows up enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina. Her entire life is shaped by the laws and social customs that constituted the system of slavery. This is clear from the beginning of the book, when Jacobs describes how her enslaved grandmother, who works on the side to get money to buy her freedom and that of her family, is deceived by whites who do not value her as a fellow human being. She loans her mistress three hundred dollars that she never gets back despite the white woman's promise, and Dr. Flint, her mistress's son-in-law and executor, puts her up for auction when her mistress dies, despite the fact that she had been promised her freedom. Jacobs describes in detail the many customs associated with slavery, and their horrible consequences for enslaved people. These include the sale of enslaved people away from their families and the constant sexual harassment of Dr. Flint. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is full of accounts of physical abuse, including whippings, incarceration, and torture meted out by whites. Flint even has Linda's children (by a white man in town) jailed in order to convince her to give in to his sexual demands. But if the brutality of slavery's laws and customs is in full display in the story of Harriet Jacobs, so too is the agency of enslaved people like Linda and her grandmother, both of whom ingeniously and courageously work within the very narrow constraints of the system of slavery to purchase freedom for members of their families and to make the best of an existence full of horrors. Linda's persistence in trying to create a life for herself and her children under the worst of conditions makes for one of the most remarkable of all the antebellum "slave narratives."

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