Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs Book Review

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs Book Review

Slave narratives. They should become a must read.

Honestly, as a young black women, there is nothing more harrowing than reading a slave narrative. At the same time, there is nothing more empowering.

The writings of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl paints a lucid image of what life might have been like if I was brought to American-soil 200 years ago.

 It’s like opening a box of old secrets.

Transient insight.

A blueprint behind a society corrupted with the belief that they are saints

But Harriet had the audacity.

“I wish the President was subject to Queen Justice”

-Harriet Jacobs pg. 54

Harriet’s Truth Telling and Black Women Truth-Telling

Harriet writes with so much rigor within her words. You can feel her urgency, the desperation, and some of the horror through the pages.

It is satisfying to know that that effect of the book now is possibly the same effect when the book was published.

It was the catalyst for more abolitionists to protest slavery. There was no longer room for rumors of the how slaves were treated. It was a living document.

 Although this book was published 16 years after Frederick Douglas’s novel and 11 years after Sojourner Truth’s narrative, it sits as time capsule of America’s history.  

It’s still peculiar how much detail of this horror has been documented, yet many walk around consciously forgetting.

Many educated, wise, transient people forget this history and the many waves of racism ebbs in flows in ways that go far beyond intention.

We’re so afraid to talk about it.

We dare not become a part of that history. Even though we already are.

Sometimes when the topic of slavery comes up, I find that things naturally become pretty intense.

The fear that the entire safety of our world would crack open, a treason from history would suddenly become a present one, and there is an slow burning desire to avenge. The process of these emotions are present for some white people too.

Harriet says herself,

“ Slavery is a curse to the whites as well to the blacks…And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.”

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.

The Aftermath and Pain of Slavery

I find often that when there are attempts (and there has been many attempts) to “describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of degradation”, it cannot exist on its own without criticism or critique from white people who cannot accept their whiteness.

I often think that there is envy for they believe there is no blueprint for themselves. There is nothing to rise from or direction to go into except maybe denial, anger, guilt or all the above.

When stuck in a binary with no resources for help, I think it can cause one to shut down the part that needs the healing the most. This causes white people to bleed more. Bleed more on themselves and other people of color.

When I think of the micro-aggressions I experienced in NY, the looks I would get from white men with my natural hair in the South, or the questions about my brother being in a gang when I visited Germany, all these accounts shoots me into Harriet’s words.

Like she knew the obvious truth that no one would dare to say.

It does make me question the costs of black women telling the truth. The impact of this book depended on it. Even though in that time period, it could have costed her life.

It’s scary to think about how truth-tellers now are faced with the same consequences.

 The other incredible aspect of this book is not only her ability to detail the life of a  slave but open the window to the minds of white people.

Upon reading, it seems like madness. It seems like ugly unhealed trauma gone power mad.

All of my mouth opens and freezes when I think of how much pain is unspoken during this time period.

Slaves buried in boxes with no words to the ceremony. Pieces of history that are lost. Stories that we’ll never know. Parts of heritage, never to be found.

A beautiful part of Harriet’s autobiography is how she humanizes herself.

 A woman who is stuck in slavery.

Simple sentence. Huge statement.

Harriet Jacobs: the woman.

It makes me extremely curious of the kind of woman she’d explain herself to be now. If she was sitting in front of me. I’d ask about her sexuality. I’d ask about her morals.

I’d ask how she came to terms with the compromises she had to make.

 How she came to terms with the woman she is now with her past.

Her being violated sexually without consent. Her being touched lovingly with her consent.

On page, 64 she pleads her innocence to the white women and men who are reading this book about her sexuality. How she aimed to remain “pure”. How she wished and desired to “wait” but because of slavery it could not happen.

It was a little cringeworthy to read that for some reason she had to defend herself from not being a seductress. That her violation of  her body was something she had to convince others she wasn’t doing for her own enjoyment. But then I thought that could’ve been the wrong way to read it.

But now I think that maybe she was trying to sooth herself from painful memories, a painful experience, a real painful life.

All of that happening.

All of that dehumanization.


This reminds me of all the intricacies we face now as black women if you’ve read my Sisters of The Yam book review.

The psychological and spiritual healing that we faced then is not that different from what many women deal with now.

It just goes unsaid.

Sitting in the subconscious of many of us.

If there’s anything to be gained from this book is to know American’s history on a real and deeper level. It’s to see how some symptoms still exist. How the effects of this book still impacts many black women and lives today.

If you have read this book, please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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