illustrated portrait of main character Linda Brent

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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Linda Brent does not realize she is enslaved until she is six years old. With her maternal grandmother, Aunt Marthy, near them, Linda lives with her parents and her brother William until her mother dies. From ages six to twelve, she lives with her first mistress, who teaches her to read. Linda then is given as property to the niece of her former slavemistress and lives in the home of Dr. Flint, who harasses her sexually and verbally when she turns fifteen years old. The doctor’s wife, Mrs. Flint, is jealous and cruel. The Flints own a town residence, several farms, and fifty slaves.

Linda’s brother William says that he does not mind the physical experience of being whipped but hates the idea that he can be whipped by people who say they own him. Linda’s uncle Benjamin escapes for the North but is discovered on a ship and, despite further escape attempts, is returned to his owner and jailed. He escapes again and reaches New York. Aunt Marthy, who has gained her own freedom, buys freedom for her son Phillip, and they rejoice that Benjamin also has escaped slavery.

Enduring the harassment of Dr. Flint, Linda verbally stands up for herself on multiple occasions. She refuses to give in to his threats of sexual attack, although Mrs. Flint accuses her of doing so. Dr. Flint gives Linda harassing notes that she pretends she cannot read. Linda falls in love with a free African American man who wants to purchase her freedom so they can marry. Dr. Flint, however, refuses to sell her to him.

Linda enters a relationship with a white man, Mr. Sands, and has two children, Benny and Ellen. The children become links to life, giving Linda reason to carry on. Dr. Flint tries to convince Linda to be his sexual slave, but she refuses. He wants her voluntary compliance and does not rape her. At the age of twenty-one, Linda goes into hiding above stairs at the home of her friend Betty. Dr. Flint, in an effort to find Linda, has her brother and children jailed for two months. The doctor finally sells them, and Mr. Sands buys them from a slavetrader, saying he will free them.

Linda hides in her grandmother’s attic crawlspace for seven years, from 1835 to 1842. She calls this space, which is nine feet by seven feet by five feet, her “loophole of retreat.” She can look through holes she creates to watch her children playing outside. They are not supposed to know where she is hiding. She finally escapes on a boat to the North. Linda learns that Ellen is being treated as a slave and not as a daughter by her birth father.

Linda knows she has to win her freedom in order to save her children. Dr. Flint still refuses to sell Linda. Linda sees her brother William and her son Benny, who later goes on a whaling voyage. She tells her northern employer, Mrs. Bruce, that she is a fugitive slave, and Mrs. Bruce decides to help her. Linda goes to England for ten months and renews her Christian faith. The second Mrs. Bruce also helps Linda elude capture and buys Linda’s freedom in 1852. Linda gains freedom for her children as well. In 1853, she begins writing the story of her enslavement and freedom.

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