illustrated portrait of main character Linda Brent

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs
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What is the significance of the slave narrative as autobiography in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?  

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Slave narratives are incredibly important for a number of reasons. While they weren't always taken seriously as literature, they have since emerged as an important subgenre in American literature and a fertile source for study and scholarship. Harvard professor and writer Henry Louis Gates, in particular, has done a great deal in drawing attention to these narratives, and his work should be consulted. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an 1861 slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs, written after she escaped slavery.

The significance of the slave narrative is manifold: as autobiography, as history, as literature, and as protest. Focusing on the autobiographical aspect, these narratives were among the only ways that black people could express themselves, as traditional avenues of literature were generally closed to them. The "novelty" of blacks writing about their harrowing experiences had appeal to a white audience, particularly abolitionists. As such, black writers could talk about the brutality of slavery in ways that they could not when they were captive and so could draw attention to how truly wretched the peculiar institution was. Since these were personal stories, it meant they were more emotional, intimate, and capable of generating sympathy. Jacobs highlights the perils of being a female slave, as she was sexually abused by one of her owners. Other slave narratives worth looking at are those by Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, and the Library of America's anthology, edited by Gates and William L. Andrews.

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