Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Critical Context - Essay

Harriet Jacobs

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Harriet Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl herself just prior to the formal outbreak of the Civil War. Although initially reviewed by the abolitionist press and fairly well distributed, the book soon faded into obscurity, only to be resurrected with the mid-twentieth century revival of interest in African American women writers. Jacobs continued her abolitionist efforts during the war and wrote occasionally for the abolitionist press. After the war, she worked during Reconstruction in the South.

Jacobs’s autobiography stands among thousands of other written and oral slave testimonies and shares with many of them the themes of bondage, suffering, self-definition, self-assertion, and escape to freedom. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs speaks her own life in her own voice. Prior to the appearance of slave narrative, the black abolitionist press, and the first black-authored fiction, African American experience was most often portrayed in literature as an objectified “problem” by white writers. In her autobiography, Jacobs takes the subjective stance of a black woman defining her own experience from a viewpoint deeply rooted in the black slave community. In doing so, she poses a sophisticated and fundamental challenge to white slaveholding American culture.