Not only is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl the most famous and most analyzed slave narrative by an African American woman, but Harriet Jacobs is also the only enslaved woman in America who left papers testifying to her life and describing how she came to write her narrative. The book, which uses pseudonyms for historically real persons (with Jacobs writing as Linda Brent), exposes the cruelties and injustices of the chattel slavery system in North America. Jacobs says that she wrote her story to make women of the North realize the sufferings of millions of enslaved women in the South. Other abolitionist literature did not expose the sexual vulnerabilities of enslaved women. Challenging in its time, the narrative’s subject matter caused its serial publication to end early. The full book was published in 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War.
In order to indict the slavery power system for tyranny and sexual ownership of African American women, Jacobs must reveal her participation in a romantic relationship producing two illegitimate children. As an enslaved woman, she is denied freedom to choose a romantic partner or husband. Jacobs asks for her readers’ pity for her violation of Christian laws regarding sexuality on the grounds that, because she is considered property, she is powerless to obey them. Jacobs emphasizes the hypocrisy of slaveowners such as her owner who study the Bible and teach slaves verses about loving one’s neighbor as oneself but who do not recognize enslaved persons as their neighbors.
This exciting and completely factual narrative addresses diverse topics, including slavery’s psychological rupture of black families, relationships among antebellum white women and enslaved women, laws allowing slavery, resistance to bondage, methods of seizing freedom, revision of racial stereotypes, African American networking, and ideals of womanhood. Jacobs finds that racist and discriminatory practices continue in the northern states, as when African Americans cannot ride in the front of trains. While narrating her life, Jacobs mentions historical events such as the Nat Turner uprising, a major slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which strengthened legal requirements that Americans living in any state, regardless of local laws, must return enslaved persons to their masters.