Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself Multi Media Project by: Ellen Hudson Brown

Dear Reader,

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.

"I was born a slave" (Jacobs 28)

Edenton, North Carolina

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).
Dr. and Mrs. Flint (Dr. James Norcom & Mary Matilda Horniblow Norcom)
"He told me I was his property, that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny" (Jacobs 52).
"They put him into a rough box, and buried him with less feeling than would have been manifested for an old house dog. Nobody asked any questions. He was a slave; and the feeling was that the master had a right to do what he pleased with his own property" (Jacobs 74).

Old House Dog, Rat Devoured

no questions asked

Property

the right to do what he pleased

master gone mad

forgetting humanity

"The following advertisement was posted at every corner, and in every public place for miles round"

(Jacobs 119)

Genre Notes

  1. Dear Reader - The purpose of the dear reader is to prepare the viewer for the project. It is necessary for the viewer to know that there is no possibility that they can understand the brutality of slavery, but that does not mean that we should shy away from learning about it and its impact on our world today.
  2. Quote: "I was born a slave" - These are the first lines of Jacobs' narrative and they are significant because Jacobs' is testifying about her humanity from the first words of her narrative. She is first a human, born like all of the readers of her narrative. Her bondage in slavery does not take away from the fact that she is a human just like every other reader.
  3. Timeline of Jacobs' Life - I included this timeline so that viewers could have a historical picture of Jacobs life. This timeline includes what occurred in history during Jacobs' life.
  4. Edenton Census - Jacobs' was born in Edenton North Carolina, which is significant to her narrative because of the property laws of North Carolina. These property laws allowed for women to own property if they were not yet married. This is what allowed for Jacobs to be given to Dr. Flints' five-year-old daughter. The census also gives the viewer a visual picture of the increased amount of slaves in North Carolina from 1800 to 1840.
  5. Expository Piece about the use of property - This is one of the things that most interested me when I read Jacobs' narrative. I became fascinated with her repeated use of the word property and the rhetorical brilliancy behind this choice.
  6. Quote from Dr. Flint on page fifty-two - I believe that this quote is one of many that capture the torture of slavery. Dr. Flint is repeatedly attempting to strip and manipulate Jacobs from accessing her humanity. The quote continues after the images of Dr. and Mrs. Flint where Jacobs acknowledges to the reader that Dr. Flint was lawfully allowed to attempt to control her in this way because he owned her. In the eyes of the law she was his property, a commodity, yet she still "revolted" against his attempts to own her.
  7. Pictures of Dr. and Mrs. Flint - I can only look at these images for a second before I get too emotionally upset. It is terrible and moving to see the real portrait image of the man who abused Jacobs and chased her across the country.
  8. Video of Reading - I thought that this video could be a resource to use in a classroom. This video may be helpful to students who are struggling to picture Jacobs.
  9. Image "We are People not Property" - This image can be put up in a classroom and it focusses on the message that Jacobs gives her readers, she is a person and not property.
  10. Poem written by me - I used words from the quote on page seventy-four to create a short poem. This is an activity that could be used in the classroom.
  11. Advertisement from newspaper - This advertisement was referenced in Jacobs' narrative, so including it here allows for students to realize that this story is factual and the events in this story did happen -- Jacobs really was hunted by Dr. Flint.

Bibliography

  • http://webpage.pace.edu/kculkin/summary.html
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26NPLHWthbM
  • http://www.harrietjacobs.org
  • http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/learning/educators/timelines/nineteenth-century-north-carolina-timeline
  • http://www.ncpedia.org/biography/norcom-james-sr
  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2923.html
  • http://www.harrietjacobs.org/timeline.html
Created By
Ellen Hudson Howard
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