(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

An intriguing question arises immediately when considering Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Why did Jacobs use pseudonyms for herself and other historical people? Why would she choose to distance herself in this way from her own autobiography, especially considering that slave narrative, as a genre, builds upon the authority of the speaker’s own experience to pose a direct political challenge to slavery?

One obvious reason would be as a protective device. Jacobs, like other slave-narrative authors, may have chosen to mask the historical identity of her family in order to protect their privacy and the safety of those slaves still bound in her former community. Like other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl provides only sketchy details of its protagonist’s actual escape and refrains from naming many of her accomplices. This also, no doubt, stems from a desire to protect them. The fact that Jacobs does not name the actual Dr. Flint and his family can be understood as a tactic to prevent more violence or abuse by them toward members of her family or her former friends in Edenton, North Carolina, the actual community of her birth and the location of the early portions of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

There is another possible explanation for Jacobs’s decision to use pseudonyms, however, and this reason gets to some of the unique characteristics of the book as autobiography and as slave narrative. Harriet Jacobs directly confronts the sexual abuse that constantly confronted many female slaves. She offers herself as “evidence” in this sense, but she does so through her own voice and in her own terms. Her terms in this case include an apparent psychological and emotional ambivalence about her own actions in response to this abuse. Ultimately, she makes a clear claim for the legitimacy of her choices given the continued threat of rape by Flint. Jacobs challenges the moral absolutism of her readers, and perhaps of herself, by clearly presenting the context within which her seemingly immoral choice to have children with Sands is made. Lacking the legal options of marriage and the freedom to control her own life, she does her best to protect herself and her children. It...

(The entire section is 921 words.)