Instructor’s Teaching Experience
I teach excerpts from Jacobs's autobiography before introducing Octavia Butler's Kindred. Before reading any text that focuses on slavery, I think it's important to expose students to the slave narrative form and tracing how the African American literary tradition has evolved from its inception on the antebellum plantation. My students are always very surprised by the narrative, which offers a somewhat different image of enslavement than what they've been exposed to before. For being an older text, I haven't heard any complaints from students about Incidents being difficult to read or understand: Jacobs's prose is direct and easy to follow, so it's a great text to bring into the classroom to give students direct access to writing
On the day you discuss Jacobs, it might be useful to have a short lecture that covers several of the historical events discussed or alluded to in the narrative, such as the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) [referred to as Bloodhound Law in text]. You might also need to go over a brief timeline of the period, including a timeline of American slavery and the Civil War. Jacobs's narrative was published in 1861, which students may not realize is the same time the Civil War began.
Slave Narrative Form
Jacobs's narrative follows the typical slave narrative form (which we also see repeated in some neo-slave narratives). If you want to discuss the history and conventions of the slave narrative, you can share the following information:
- First published in England in the 1700s
- Peak of popularity in early/mid 1800s America
- Often used by abolitionists to support the end of slavery
- Some writers of slave narratives—most famously, Frederick Douglass—became public speakers in the North
- End of slavery resulted in fewer publications....
- Until 1930s, when 2,300 new narratives were collected under the Works Progress Administration (New Deal)
- Jacobs's narrative was not widely read at the time of publication, but was "recovered" in the 1970s and '80s as the canon was reformed to include more work by women
- Neo-Slave Narratives: As the academy began to grapple with the legacy of slavery in the 1960s and ‘70s, slave narratives became popular objects of study
- At the same time, contemporary writers began working in the genre using modern literary conventions to highlight connections between the plantation past and the present day
The slave narrative typically follows the same series of events:
- Recognition: writer realizes they are enslaved and what that means
- Horrors of slavery, at times depicted in graphic detail
- Physical labor of plantation
- Physical abuse by master/overseer
- Discussion of literacy and/or religion
- Escape and pursuit
- Free life in the North; reflections on slavery
- What did you learn about slavery from reading Incidents? What elements were familiar to you from what you learned about slavery in previous courses? What was new?
- Who do you think Jacobs's primary audience was? [Hint: Read preface together to discuss audience]
- How is Christianity represented in the narrative? To what end?
- How is Linda's experience of enslavement shaped by her being a woman?
- What roles does Mrs. Flint play in the narrative? Why do you think so much of the text focuses on Linda's relationship with Mrs. Flint?
- How does the text depict the Black family? How about the wider Black communities that exist on and around the plantation?
- How is Linda's relationship with Mr. Sands introduced to the reader? What is the impact of this framing?
- How does motherhood change Linda's life?
- The later chapters of the text refer explicitly to legal structures; how does this ending serve the rest of the narrative?
The full text can be found here: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
If you don't want to teach the entire text, you can use this excerpted version (36 pages).