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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 | Context


Abolitionist Movement

The movement to end slavery in the United States began in the late 18th century, when disapproval of slavery became widespread in the North. By 1804 the states in the North had passed laws to abolish slavery, and in 1808 an act prohibiting the importing of slaves went into effect in the United States.

Because of the demand for cotton in the 1800s, the South resisted the North's example. In response to a slave rebellion instigated in 1831 by rebel slave Nat Turner, which killed about 60 white people and freed their slaves, Southern slaveholders became more stringent. Because persuasion failed, American abolitionists changed their peaceful approach and created antislavery societies throughout the country. The American Anti-Slavery Society had nearly a quarter of a million members by 1838, mostly in the Northeast. Frederick Douglass, author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845, was a spokesperson for this society.

Slave Narratives

Between 1760 and 1947 more than 200 book-length slave narratives were published in the United States and England. Former slaves told their stories to promote the abolitionist cause and also to document the struggles they had survived. Some, like Sojourner Truth, dictated their narratives. Others, like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, used their hard-won gifts of literacy to write their own stories.

Slave narratives were rediscovered as works of literature during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With their vivid descriptions of the emotional and physical horrors of slavery and the authors' individual quests for freedom they are both compelling reading and an indictment of the institution of slavery.

Proving the Book's Authenticity

For many years critics and scholars actively challenged the veracity of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In 1981 scholar Jean Fagan Yellin provided evidence to support Jacobs's life and work that included wills, runaway advertisements, receipts from purchases, and floor plans of Molly Horniblow's house. The book was republished in 1987 with a text edited by Yellin. Reviewing the 1987 edition for the New York Times, the distinguished scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., called it the "crowning achievement" of female slave narratives.

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