Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By Harriet A. Jacobs Study Help Essay Questions

1. Jacobs' autobiography is accompanied by two advocacy letters attesting to the work's authenticity — one by Amy Post, a white Quaker abolitionist, the other by George W. Lowther, whom Brent's editor, Lydia Maria Child, identifies as "a highly respectable colored citizen of Boston." These testimonials reveal that had Brent succeeded in publishing the narrative on her own, readers would not have believed that it was written by a former slave. Given the relationship between the testimonials and the narrative, consider the following:

a. Does Brent's narrative live up to the expectations set by the testimonials?

b. Is the work as moving and dramatic as these writers say it is?

c. Does Brent's role as an observer of her own time, and as the author of her life's story, give her work credibility independent of what others say?

d. Could you argue that Brent's story is far superior to the material that supports it?

2. Does Brent's narrative support the concept that literacy is a metaphor for freedom? Explain.

3. Brent's relationship with her grandmother (Aunt Martha) gives her the strength to endure seemingly impossible hardships in order to be near her children. What impact do some of the other women in the narrative have on Brent's life?

4. The use of language is a critical factor in Brent's narrative. For example, numerous critics have pointed out that Brent's sophisticated manner of speaking seems incompatible with her character. Discuss.

5. Compare the opening chapter of Incidents with the opening chapter of Frederick Douglass's Narrative. What are some of the key differences between these two works?

6. Compare Brent's Incidents to Toni Morrison's Beloved. How does Morrison's graphic use of language to describe the horrors of slavery add to the emotional impact of her work?

7. In discussing the continuing problems of racism and the dismal social and economic status of inner-city blacks, historians often refer to "the legacy of slavery." Based on Brent's experiences as a slave and as a free woman in the United States, how valid are their observations?

8. In Chapter 1, "Childhood," Brent describes the "unusually fortunate circumstances" of her early childhood from ages 6-12, before she became fully aware of her slave status. With this in mind, read Zora Neale Hurston's essay, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." How does Hurston's experience reflect Brent's?

9. When Aunt Martha tells Linda that her father is dead (Chapter 2), Linda recalls her initial response: "He had died so suddenly I had not even heard that he was sick." What does this incident reveal about Aunt Martha? About Linda? What are the circumstances surrounding her father's death? Why do you think Linda was not permitted to attend her father's funeral?

10. In Chapter 3, Brent describes the meaning of New Year's Day from a slave's perspective. With this in mind, read Frederick Douglass' speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July." How is his message similar to Brent's?

11. In Chapter 4, "The Slave Who Dared to Feel Like a Man," Brent tells the story of her Uncle Benjamin. What impact does this story seem to have on her?

12. In Chapter 5, "The Trials of Girlhood," Brent relates the story of two sisters — one black, one white — and their very different fates. How does this story affect her personally?

13. In Chapter 6, "The Jealous Mistress," Brent describes the relationship between Dr. and Mrs. Flint. Based on her description, how would you characterize their marriage?

14. In Chapter 7, Linda describes her relationship with a free black man who offers to buy her freedom. How does this relationship affect her decision to enter into a sexual liaison with Mr. Sands?

15. In Chapter 8, Brent describes "What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North." What is the underlying message of this chapter?

16. In Chapter 9, Brent provides sketches of three slaveholders: Mr. Litch, Mr. Conant, and Mrs. Wade. How would you characterize these three individuals?

17. In Chapter 10, "A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl's Life," Brent describes her relationship with Mr. Sands. How is her decision to enter into this relationship a "perilous passage" in her life?

18. By choosing to have two children by Mr. Sands, it can be argued that Brent is largely responsible for creating her own dilemma. Discuss.

19. In Chapter 11, Brent describes the birth of her son, Ben. How does this incident impact her life?

20. In Chapter 12, "Fear of Insurrection," Brent describes the aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion. Discuss.

21. In Chapter 13, "The Church and Slavery," Brent explores the moral conflict between slavery and Christianity. Does she build a successful case for the incompatibility of these two institutions? Discuss.

22. In Chapters 14-16, Brent describes the birth of her daughter, Ellen, and her experiences on Mr. Flint's plantation. How do these incidents affect her?

23. What is the significance of Brent's statement that "the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving people on the face of the earth"?

24. In Chapters 17-20, Brent describes her first attempt to escape and the aftermath of her actions. Discuss.

25. Chapter 21, "The Loophole of Retreat," presents a pivotal point in Brent's story. Discuss.

26. What are some of the Christmas rituals and festivities Brent describes in Chapter 22?

27. In Chapter 25, "Competition in Cunning," Brent tricks Dr. Flint into thinking she is in New York by writing him a letter and having it postmarked in New York. Explore the connections between Brent's narrative and the "cunning" characters in black folktales such as "Br'er Rabbit" and "Big John."

28. In Chapter 35, "Prejudice Against Color," Brent explores the complex issue of color prejudice among some blacks, a prejudice that can be traced directly to the institution of slavery. Explain.

29. In Chapter 37, "A Visit to England," Brent compares her treatment in England with her treatment in the United States. How does she characterize her experiences?

30. In Chapter 40, "The Fugitive Slave Act," Brent discusses the impact of this law on runaway slaves. What were some of the issues that led to the passage of this law?

31. In Chapter 41, "Free at Last," Brent describes her experiences upon finally obtaining her freedom. But how "free" is she really? Cite examples from the text to support your argument. You may also want to research the passage of Jim Crow laws in the South.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After Linda escapes from Mr. Flint's plantation, her relatives advise her to do what?




Quiz