The Power of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs, in the preface to her book, wrote:
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 (335).
With this statement, Jacobs specified her purpose for writing and her intended audience. This insight gives readersan understanding of why she chose to include what she did in her story as well as why she chose to exclude other details. Although this work is presented as a narrative of her own life circumstances, there were many occasions when she described conditions of which she was not directly involved. For example, she entitled one chapter "Sketches of Neighboring Slaveholders" and dedicated ...view middle of the document...
For example, she pleaded with her readers to forgive her sins before she told of the circumstances of her first pregnancy. She did not want to alienate them by offending the high value they placed on virtue. Instead, she made every effort to portray herself as a moral and virtuous character that was corrupted by the evils of slavery.
Jacobs made many other attempts to appeal to the righteousness of the women in the North as well. She repeatedly told of the threat or reality of children being separated from their mothers; of young girls being exposed to foul language and inappropriate sexual advances, including rape; and of the disposal of elderly slaves without any consideration for their years of loyalty. She also tried to depict slaves as spiritual beings that were often denied the right to religious practices. Again, this was to demonstrate how slavery corrupted an otherwise moral people. However, she ventured further in this aspect by illustrating the many ways in which slavery demoralized the whites of the South into committing terrible atrocities that would not take place if it were not for the laws that upheld slavery. Even the whites in the North, according to Jacobs, were debased by this wicked institution because they would permit the barbarity to continue and often times perpetuate it by returning escaped slaves to their owners.
Jacobs used many tactics to try to forward her purpose - that of convincing white women of the North that slavery must be ended. Besides giving an account of particular situations from her own life that she thought might draw supporters, she described the deplorable conditions for many others that were in bondage. She argued that slavery was not only a demon that possessed the South, but she held the people of the free states accountable for their contributions in upholding slavery through their own laws that mandated the return of runaway slaves as well as their inaction against slavery. Her decision to include what she did while excluding other enumerations was very effective in arguing her point.
Jacobs, Harriet. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Mentor, 1987.