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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Chapter 12 : The Fear of Insurrection | Summary



The news of Nat Turner's insurrection affects the town. Knowing houses will be searched, Linda tidies everything. The next morning a patrol band intent on spreading terror among both free and enslaved African Americans arrives at Aunt Martha's house. For "low" or non-slave owning whites, this "muster" is an opportunity to experience slaveholding privilege: to "exercise a little brief authority, and show their subservience to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation." While the band search Martha's house, Linda's letters are discovered and destroyed. The marauders find nothing, steal some clothing, and continue to the next house.

At night, the drunk searchers' behavior worsens; their pillaging continues for weeks. Honorable citizens protect the innocent by keeping them in jail or guarding their slave's houses. Once Nat Turner is captured, the patrol stops. They release the imprisoned slaves and burn the black church. Of the destroyed church, Linda says it "was built by [African Americans], and they had no higher happiness than to meet there and sing hymns together, and pour out their hearts in spontaneous prayer."


In this chapter Linda Brent exposes how slavery intersects with class. Following the insurrection "low whites" are recruited to protect property and maintain the status quo. Brent describes them as "a troop of demons, terrifying and tormenting the helpless," rampaging through the town and capriciously doling out 500 lashes. This brief—and severe—abuse of power inflicted on slaves by lower-class whites reveals the wide-ranging cruelties that slavery enables.

For the black community the church service is their greatest joy. The destruction of the church proves that —for slaves—things can always get worse. This terrible downward spiral draws attention to the urgency of abolishing the system of slavery.

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