The following is an introduction to Harriet Jacobs' narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. There is an accumulation of information from differing genres to submerse you into Jacobs' narrative. Even with the vast amount of information provided here and in Jacobs' narrative we will never be able to fully comprehend the pain and brutality that she experienced. Recognizing this though is the first step to widening our perspective on the history of our country and the people who are descendants of that history.
Expository Piece: The Use of the Word Property in Jacobs' Incidents
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, Harriet Jacobs writes about her own life using the pseudonym Linda Brent. She makes an appeal to northern white women, who would be reading her autobiography when it was first published in 1861. What is surprising about the rhetoric of this autobiography is the way in which Jacobs regularly refers to herself and to her family as property. The Oxford English Dictionary defines property as “something that belongs” and something that is “exploited” and used for the betterment of another. Enslaved people were thought of as commodity; meaning they belonged to a person as property. In her autobiography, Jacobs repeatedly refers to herself as property, yet property is the opposite of a human quality when it involves one human owning another human. The commodified human has no right to his or her own breath; everything about the person belongs to his or her master. Not only did the majority of slave masters have this outlook, but the government supported this system by law beginning in Virginia in 1659-60 (Finkelman 109). Through the years these laws were modified to the benefit of the masters to keep women and children under their complete control, which kept the system of slavery profitable after the slave trade was abolished. Jacobs repeatedly refers to herself as property to challenge her female readers to critically think about their role in the system of slavery because even though women did not have much agency at this time, they still had the right to own slaves and could thus choose how they would leverage that power. The rhetorical strategies Jacobs uses in this autobiography are designed to humanize Jacobs, shock the northern women, and provoke the readers into action regarding how they would treat their own slaves if they were in the position of a mistress.
Jacobs' Master, Dr. Flint
"He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him - where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature" (Jacobs 52).