illustrated portrait of main character Linda Brent

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs
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Who is the audience in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

The audience in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was middle-to-upper-class Christian white women. Harriet Jacobs's narrative was published during the Civil War and sought to gain her audience's sympathy for the plight of slave women.

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Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is her autobiographical account, published under her pen name Linda Brent, of her life as a slave and her escape from her master in the antebellum American South. Jacobs's audience would be mostly white readers, since a majority of...

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Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is her autobiographical account, published under her pen name Linda Brent, of her life as a slave and her escape from her master in the antebellum American South. Jacobs's audience would be mostly white readers, since a majority of Black Americans were enslaved and illiterate, not being permitted an education by their masters.

More specifically, due to the specific experiences of her life as a woman—namely as a mother—Jacobs had white Christian women of the middle and upper classes in mind as her targeted reader. As many white women in the South would have been expected to sympathize with the Confederacy—and by extension, to support the institution of slavery—Jacobs spoke directly to white women in the North in her text's preface:

But I do earnestly 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, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.

Because women of the North would likely have no direct experience witnessing slavery themselves, Jacobs's narrative will expose the truths of the institution. Even though Jacobs says she does not want sympathy for herself based on what she has endured, her narrative does seek to establish an emotional connection between herself and the reader so that the reader can be thoroughly convinced of the evils of slavery, especially in its impact on women and mothers.

Jacobs had a complicated task in achieving her purpose because her audience could be seen as delicate and proper, so much so that some of Jacobs's experiences may shock them and even turn them away from the speaker who survived those traumas. This is especially true in the way Jacobs must present her repeated sexual assualts. It was common in slavery for white masters to rape their female slaves and even to bear children by those slaves.

In Jacobs's narrative as in other texts, the master's wife tends to blame the slave, see her as an evil seductress, and forget her husband's part in the abuse and adultery perpetrated. Jacobs knows her readers are Christians and so attempts to bond with them on the level of their religious beliefs. Jacobs was opposed to her master's adultery and did anything in her power to resist.

Finally, Jacobs attempts to form a bond with her reader by presenting herself as a devoted mother who is both risking her life for the survival of her children and suffering herself by her separation from them. Jacobs emotionally describes her feelings at being apart from her children while she is in hiding, watching them from a small crack in an attic. Jacobs knows that her readers are likely to be mothers themselves, and if they put themselves in Jacobs's place and think about the ways slavery strains and sometimes destroys mother-child relationships, they may be sympathetic with the women who must endure such unimaginable hardships.

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