Analysis of a Slave Narrative: Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl



Relationships built around slavery can become extremely complex, especially those held between slaves and their masters. Through looking at Harriet Jacob’s narrative it can be seen through her experiences that her relationship with her master Dr Flint and the ‘affection’ that he held for her had a huge impact upon her, not just through the entrapment with being held as his slave, yet also it affected her relations with most other people, these include relations with her grandmother and her master’s wife in particular. Another issue that is significant when looking into master – slave relations, and that is the difference between these relations within large plantations and smaller households. The ‘problem of slavery’[1] the term Davis coins in regards to recognising the humanity of slaves, is especially problematic within smaller households where strong relations are possible to be built.

Within Harriet Jacob’s narrative many relationships are highlighted and the emotions within them are captured with great strength. The slave – master relations had causal effects upon the whole family and even the local community. Within the Flint household Jacobs was subjected to the lust and wilful demands of her master, this abuse began when Jacob was only fifteen, it was as she arrived at womanhood that Dr Flint began to build his ‘affection’ or lust as a stronger term for his motives[2]. The effect this held for her was detrimental witHarriet_Ann_Jacobsh her relations with other family members, especially that of his wife. This sexual desire that Dr Flint had for Jacob was causing great pain to his wife, she became riddled with jealousy and began to resent this young slave girl.

‘At last, I began to be fearful of my life. It had often been threatened; and you can imagine, better than I can describe, what an unpleasant sensation it must produce to wake up in the dead of night and find a jealous woman bending over you’[3].

As can be seen, the relation that Dr Flint imposed upon Jacob inflicted great misery and pain upon her, not only is this misery inflicted through the acts but also through the wife’s reactions. Jacob repeatedly discusses throughout the narrative Dr Flint’s pleasure of owning great control, this love of control is evidently so strong that it tests his marriage. He has driven his wife to such bouts of jealousy without any sense of remorse or guilt. Granted we are looking at this narrative from the perspective from the victim, but from looking at a broader historical perspective this lust and affection imposed upon young slave girls was not uncommon. Willie Lee Rose has included a telling court case within her documentary history of slavery. The case in question is where a wife sues her husband for divorce due to his behaviour towards their slave Lucy. Within this case the husband was replacing the wife sexually and furthermore her social stance within the household.[4]

When reading Jacob’s narrative and assessing the relationship between her and Mrs Flint, it is ideal to attempt to view the situation from the wife’s perspective as a way to see where the jealousy is stemmed from. From Mrs Flint’s stance, she was having her rights questioned and put up for dispute as one of her slaves was receiving special treatment, and a vast amount of attention spent upon her, attention and treatment that should be directed towards a wife. She was unable to punish the slave in question, in her eyes an inferior being, as she was under her husband’s protection[5]. This would all be leading to her questioning her stance within the household and also where her husband’s loyalties lied, whether to her or to the young slave. Her social standings elevated her above Jacob, yet she was unable to put her through the treatments and punishments that she believed Jacob deserved, so the master – slave relation was really being tested here. Regardless of the wife’s views, Jacobs was not really subject to the protection of the Doctor, yet quite the opposite, she was entrapped within his affection and lust. The psychological abuse she received from such a young age is indescribable; ‘He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think off.’[6]  This affection that Dr Flint has for Jacob, is due to her sexuality and being a young girl who ‘was made for his use, made to obey his every command in every thing; that [she] was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should to his.’[7]

Dr Flint himself, regardless of the terrible treatment that he inflicted upon Jacob’s, it is obvious that he did in fact hold her in great regard, this is evident throughout the narrative. He built a property just for her, this would serve more purpose for the Doctor himself as it would mean he could have her as his pet and could treat her how he wants out of view of his wife. Arguably his lustful actions do highlight the regard he holds her in however objectively this view is. So regardless of the means he obviously was affectionate for her but through the way in which there relationship was created, through slavery meant that this affection was really in fact just abuse. This sense of high regard can also be seen with when Jacob’s ran away, many attempts to deceive her through the use of writings over the years occurred in an attempt to have her back under his care. He even ventured to the north three times as an attempt to retrieve her, the final time he went he had to borrow a significant sum in order to finance the trip. Through the attempts made to retrieve shows how strongly he desired her. This could have been merely for financial reasons as slaves where expensive and valued highly, (value in the sense of livestock, not moral value). Yet this is not the case with Flint, due to his love of control, he was determined never to free Jacobs and that she was to remain in servitude; ‘You are my slave, and shall always be my slave. I will never sell you, that you may depend on’[8]

Within Jacob’s narrative, an interesting figure is her Grandmother, who is a free person of colour. She is greatly respected by Mrs Flint as she was raised by the grandmother who served as her wet nurse. The relationship between the two, is similar to that of mother and daughter, as Mrs Flint from a young age was fed and raised by her, it cannot be imagined that through such close relations that real affections are not formed. The respect shown towards the grandmother can be seen all throughout the town, many white guests would visit her to enjoy her company and also her baking abilities. ‘”Aunt Marthy,” as she was called, was generally known, and everybody who knew her respected her intelligence and good character’[9]. Jacob’s describes the scene where regardless of her mistresses promise of freedom Dr Flint puts her upon the auction block to be sold. Due to the respect that she was given by the townsfolk no one bided on her, knowing that her freedom was promised, thus shaming Dr Flint[10]. To analyse the relationships between master and slave, this is particularly interesting as it shows a strong sense of respect towards the grandmother’s autonomy, so much so that the townsfolk acted in a manner which defiled a white owner and held the slave with greater regards. Reflecting back upon this situation, you can see a shift in attitudes and in this instance a slave was not regarded as a ‘piece’ yet as a human being who has earnt her freedom. Through reading the rest of the narrative it becomes obvious that this shift in attitudes did not maintain and was not the case for all slaves, but it does show that the humanity of the slaves could be recognised by this particular town.

To continue looking at attitudes within the townsfolk, Jacob’s highlights much complexity that arises especially after the Nat Turner rebellion which created great fear among the slave masters and white folk as a whole. Many raids took place after the rebellion, where all coloured houses were raided and searched, whether free or enslaved no house was missed. The raids proved to be a monstrosity towards the coloured people as they were subject to abuse both verbally and physically and in many cases anything they had of value was stolen from them. ‘What a spectacle was that for a civilised country! A rabble, staggering under intoxication, assuming to be the administrators of justice!’[11] Jacobs paints such a scene, where you can feel the strength of this “rabble” tearing apart houses, in search for anything to suggest plans for rebellion. There was always much tension between poor whites and slaves and these raids allowed non slave holders to assert their white superiority and dominance over the slave population. Jacob explains the irony of these actions;

‘It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation’[12]

This irony shows the complexity of the relations between townsfolk and slaves. The poor white town’s people, feel the need and desire to exert their supremacy over slaves. There is a desire to gain a sense of empowerment through the ability to humiliate and dehumanise a subordinate class of people, this expresses the problem that Davis highlights within slavery. How then is it possible to degrade someone as a way to increase one’s own sense of worth without recognising the humanity of these other people? Otherwise the degrading would be a worthless venture as it would not create a sense of superiority over someone if you did not recognise them being someone. To look into a broader historical account, there was a large amount of tension between slaves and poor whites, the term ‘white trash’ was coined a lot by slaves, especially house slaves and those who were skilled. These slaves in particular could be seen as being privileged and more skilled then poor whites, they would wear fine clothes and be of irreplaceable worth. This attitude of self-worth that some slaves held was problematic as these poor whites believed they were superior due to their ethnicity, hence why the tension arises.

There were many ways in which masters enforced their superiority and justified themselves amongst piers and to themselves. This is evident within the church, sermons were devised to put emphasis on the righteousness of the white Christian. The church being used as a tool in this way was affected with the arrival of a new episcopal clergyman who stressed the importance of allowing slaves into the church. He was compassionate to the slaves and he addressed them as human beings, which Jacob expresses is the first time this has happened.[13] His compassion was heavily criticised among the white slave owners as ‘he was criticised of teaching better sermons to the negroes then he did to them’[14]. The clergyman had not finished there upon returning a few years later he preached; ‘“…Your skin is darker than mine; but God judges men by their hearts, not by the color of their skins.”’[15] This as Jacob explains is a doctrine that is unheard of from a southern pulpit and that the white folk, refuted it by saying that he is merely just embarrassing himself.[16] A quick repression of this sermon was needed, as for years previously, the church was being used as a justification to continue the use and possession of slavery, so to be told that all are equal cannot be accepted.

Another way in which Southern slave holders reflected justification, is how they reported or represented slave life. Jacobs discusses a Northern reporter who visits a southern plantation and it leads that ‘Senator Brown, of Mississippi…declared that slavery was “a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!”’[17]  This representation that has been given to the reporter was not a full account and it is not possible for a slave to dispute these words as to do this would be to feel the wrath of the master. Hearing reports such as these is only going to increase the belief that the masters are righteous to their slaves and that they have a strong relationship with their slaves.

Slave – master relations differs greatly between large and small plantations. The overall social view of slavery was that of livestock, this is evident through the whole process of the trade, the referral as ‘pieces’ and the way in which slaves were categorised and sold. This notion of livestock is mostly put into practice within the larger plantations as relationships are harder to establish due to the sheer amount of slaves working. Often the master would not come into contact with his slaves at all, leaving a slave driver to deal with the daily running. This separation left the slaves under full jurisdiction of the driver, allowing him in some cases to punish in any manner he sees fit. Jacobs discusses some of the treatment inflicted upon the slaves at neighbouring plantations. ‘No words were used, but a club felled them to the ground. A rough box was their coffin, and their interment was a dog’s burial. Nothing was said.’[18]  She makes it quite clear that death was a frequent visitor to these plantations and nothing was ever said when such occurrence arise. This tolerance to turning a blind eye to such events and allowing for the brutality of punishments to continue shows how little of a relationship was built between slaves and master. To compare this to smaller households; during the funeral of Aunt Nancy, a slave belonging to the Flint family, grievances, regardless of how small, where present. Mrs Flint even applied for Aunt Nancy to be buried within the doctor’s family burial-place[19].

Jacob’s narrative allows for a glimpse into a life of servitude and the relationships which are created between slave and master. It becomes clear very quickly that these relationships are very complex and differs from person to person. Slavery creates enforced relations with the master with extreme power differences. It is important though when looking into Jacobs account, that as she illiterates the different relations held, it is also important to look at this more broadly and to realise that all accounts will not be similar to the experiences held by those characterised within her writings. So regardless of the detail that is met within this narrative describing relations, this does not entirely reflect relations between slave and masters as a whole, but just her personal experience.

[1] David Brion Davis, Inhuman bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 35

[2] Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louise Gates, Jr. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2012), 436

[3] Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” 443

[4] “Mrs. Hansley Sues for Divorce,” in A Documentary History of Slavery in North America, ed. Willie Lee Rose (Athens [GA], University of Georgia Press, 1999), 427

[5] Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” 441

[6] Ibid, 436

[7] Ibid, 426

[8] Ibid, 470

[9] Ibid, 420

[10] Ibid, 420

[11] Ibid, 477

[12] Ibid, 474

[13] Ibid, 482

[14] Ibid, 482

[15] Ibid, 483

[16] Ibid, 483

[17] Ibid, 533

[18] Ibid, 456

[19] Ibid, 558




Davis, David Brion, Inhuman bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Jacobs Harriet, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louise Gates, Jr., 413-617. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2012

“Mrs. Hansley Sues for Divorce,” in A Documentary History of Slavery in North America, ed. Willie Lee Rose, 427-34. Athens [GA], University of Georgia Press, 1999




Analysis of a Slave Narrative: Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl

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