Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By Harriet A. Jacobs Summary and Analysis Chapter 1

Summary

As the narrative opens, Linda Brent recounts the "unusually fortunate circumstances" of her early childhood before she realized she was a slave. Linda's father is a carpenter who — because of his extraordinary skills — is granted many of the privileges of a free man. The chapter introduces Linda's mother, her brother William, and her Uncle Benjamin, who is sold at age ten. Linda also introduces her maternal grandmother (referred to as Aunt Martha by the white community), a strong-willed, resourceful woman who establishes a bakery to earn money to buy her children's freedom. She manages to earn $300, which she loans to her mistress, who never repays her.

When Linda is six years old, her mother dies. When she is 12, her mistress dies, and Linda is sold to the five-year-old daughter of her mistress' sister.

Analysis

Like many other formerly enslaved black men and women who documented their life stories, such as Frederick Douglass and Mary Prince, Brent opens her narrative with the statement, "I was born." This phrase is not followed, as readers might expect, by the date and place of her birth, but by the words "a slave." Consequently, as the Introduction notes, Brent's narrative, supplemented by the obligatory advocacy letters and testimonials, meets one of the primary conventions of the traditional slave narrative.

The connotation of these three words, which may seem imminently appropriate for the beginning of an autobiography, help readers recognize the power of personal narrative: Through their writings, which document their triumphant journeys from bondage to freedom, these men and women were, in fact, recreating themselves by rejecting their status as "property" and — through the process of a metaphorical "rebirth" — viewing themselves as unique human beings with the power to influence their own destinies.

Brent points out that she remained blissfully unaware of her enslaved status until the age of six, when her mother dies. Thus, she establishes within the first few pages of her narrative the powerful bond she shared with her mother. In subsequent chapters, readers discover that this maternal bond extends to the nurturing, supportive relationship she shares with her grandmother. Readers can also surmise that Linda's fierce, protective love for her children stems from the unconditional love she herself experienced as a child.

After establishing that black mothers are just as devoted to their children as their white counterparts, Brent relates the story of her grandmother, who was forced to watch her youngest son, Benjamin, sold at the age of ten. But despite her grandmother's circumstances, Brent does not portray her as a weak woman who passively accepts her fate. Instead, she describes her as a strong-willed woman determined to do everything in her power to keep her family together. Consequently, when she lends her mistress her hard-earned $300 — which she had saved toward the purchase of her children's freedom — readers can identify with her pain and devastation upon realizing that her mistress has betrayed her trust. In short, Brent portrays her grandmother not as a helpless victim, but as a strong, albeit vulnerable, woman who has been exploited and victimized.

After her mother's death, Linda spends the next six years as the slave of her mother's mistress, who treats her well and keeps her promise to Linda's mother to care for her children. But when her mistress dies and Linda becomes the property of a five-year-old, she realizes that she is completely at the mercy of her "masters," and that, regardless of the kind treatment she has received, she is a slave.

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




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