Harriet Ann Jacobs.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself online

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So one morning, long before day, Benjamin was missing. He was riding over
the blue billows, bound for Baltimore.

For once his white face did him a kindly service. They had no suspicion
that it belonged to a slave; otherwise, the law would have been followed
out to the letter, and the _thing_ rendered back to slavery. The brightest
skies are often overshadowed by the darkest clouds. Benjamin was taken
sick, and compelled to remain in Baltimore three weeks. His strength was
slow in returning; and his desire to continue his journey seemed to retard
his recovery. How could he get strength without air and exercise? He
resolved to venture on a short walk. A by-street was selected, where he
thought himself secure of not being met by any one that knew him; but a
voice called out, "Halloo, Ben, my boy! what are you doing _here_!"

His first impulse was to run; but his legs trembled so that he could not
stir. He turned to confront his antagonist, and behold, there stood his old
master's next door neighbor! He thought it was all over with him now; but
it proved otherwise. That man was a miracle. He possessed a goodly number
of slaves, and yet was not quite deaf to that mystic clock, whose ticking
is rarely heard in the slaveholder's breast.

"Ben, you are sick," said he. "Why, you look like a ghost. I guess I gave
you something of a start. Never mind, Ben, I am not going to touch you. You
had a pretty tough time of it, and you may go on your way rejoicing for all
me. But I would advise you to get out of this place plaguy quick, for there
are several gentlemen here from our town." He described the nearest and
safest route to New York, and added, "I shall be glad to tell your mother I
have seen you. Good by, Ben."

Benjamin turned away, filled with gratitude, and surprised that the town he
hated contained such a gem - a gem worthy of a purer setting.

This gentleman was a Northerner by birth, and had married a southern lady.
On his return, he told my grandmother that he had seen her son, and of the
service he had rendered him.

Benjamin reached New York safely, and concluded to stop there until he had
gained strength enough to proceed further. It happened that my
grandmother's only remaining son had sailed for the same city on business
for his mistress. Through God's providence, the brothers met. You may be
sure it was a happy meeting. "O Phil," exclaimed Benjamin, "I am here at
last." Then he told him how near he came to dying, almost in sight of free
land, and how he prayed that he might live to get one breath of free air.
He said life was worth something now, and it would be hard to die. In the
old jail he had not valued it; once, he was tempted to destroy it; but
something, he did not know what, had prevented him; perhaps it was fear. He
had heard those who profess to be religious declare there was no heaven for
self-murderers; and as his life had been pretty hot here, he did not desire
a continuation of the same in another world. "If I die now," he exclaimed,
"thank God, I shall die a freeman!"

He begged my uncle Phillip not to return south; but stay and work with him,
till they earned enough to buy those at home. His brother told him it would
kill their mother if he deserted her in her trouble. She had pledged her
house, and with difficulty had raised money to buy him. Would he be bought?

"No, never!" he replied. "Do you suppose, Phil, when I have got so far out
of their clutches, I will give them one red cent? No! And do you suppose I
would turn mother out of her home in her old age? That I would let her pay
all those hard-earned dollars for me, and never to see me? For you know she
will stay south as long as her other children are slaves. What a good
mother! Tell her to buy _you_, Phil. You have been a comfort to her, and I
have been a trouble. And Linda, poor Linda; what'll become of her? Phil,
you don't know what a life they lead her. She has told me something about
it, and I wish old Flint was dead, or a better man. When I was in jail, he
asked her if she didn't want _him_ to ask my master to forgive me, and take
me home again. She told him, No; that I didn't want to go back. He got mad,
and said we were all alike. I never despised my own master half as much as
I do that man. There is many a worse slaveholder than my master; but for
all that I would not be his slave."

While Benjamin was sick, he had parted with nearly all his clothes to pay
necessary expenses. But he did not part with a little pin I fastened in his
bosom when we parted. It was the most valuable thing I owned, and I thought
none more worthy to wear it. He had it still.

His brother furnished him with clothes, and gave him what money he had.

They parted with moistened eyes; and as Benjamin turned away, he said,
"Phil, I part with all my kindred." And so it proved. We never heard from
him again.

Uncle Phillip came home; and the first words he uttered when he entered the
house were, "Mother, Ben is free! I have seen him in New York." She stood
looking at him with a bewildered air. "Mother, don't you believe it?" he
said, laying his hand softly upon her shoulder. She raised her hands, and
exclaimed, "God be praised! Let us thank him." She dropped on her knees,
and poured forth her heart in prayer. Then Phillip must sit down and repeat
to her every word Benjamin had said. He told her all; only he forbore to
mention how sick and pale her darling looked. Why should he distress her
when she could do him no good?

The brave old woman still toiled on, hoping to rescue some of her other
children. After a while she succeeded in buying Phillip. She paid eight
hundred dollars, and came home with the precious document that secured his
freedom. The happy mother and son sat together by the old hearthstone that
night, telling how proud they were of each other, and how they would prove
to the world that they could take care of themselves, as they had long
taken care of others. We all concluded by saying, "He that is _willing_ to
be a slave, let him be a slave."

V. The Trials Of Girlhood.

During the first years of my service in Dr. Flint's family, I was
accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress.
Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and
tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I
now entered on my fifteenth year - a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl.
My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could
not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with
indifference or contempt. The master's age, my extreme youth, and the fear
that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this
treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means
to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that
made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought
must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they
left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my
grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images,
such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust
and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same
roof with him - where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the
most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I
must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the
mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the
slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case,
there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or
even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of
men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other
feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the
wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe.
They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited
one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions
suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten
the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil,
the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of
whites do for him at the south.

Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery
the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows. Even the little child,
who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn,
before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and
such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child's own mother is among those
hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot
help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing
in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master's
footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child.
If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That
which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation
of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to
feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most
acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I
suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the
retrospect. My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to
him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to
him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied
toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother's grave, his dark
shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me
became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master's house
noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared to ask the
cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices
under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offence
that never went unpunished.

I longed for some one to confide in. I would have given the world to have
laid my head on my grandmother's faithful bosom, and told her all my
troubles. But Dr. Flint swore he would kill me, if I was not as silent as
the grave. Then, although my grandmother was all in all to me, I feared her
as well as loved her. I had been accustomed to look up to her with a
respect bordering upon awe. I was very young, and felt shamefaced about
telling her such impure things, especially as I knew her to be very strict
on such subjects. Moreover, she was a woman of a high spirit. She was
usually very quiet in her demeanor; but if her indignation was once
roused, it was not very easily quelled. I had been told that she once
chased a white gentleman with a loaded pistol, because he insulted one
of her daughters. I dreaded the consequences of a violent outbreak;
and both pride and fear kept me silent. But though I did not confide
in my grandmother, and even evaded her vigilant watchfulness and inquiry,
her presence in the neighborhood was some protection to me. Though she
had been a slave, Dr. Flint was afraid of her. He dreaded her scorching
rebukes. Moreover, she was known and patronized by many people; and he
did not wish to have his villany made public. It was lucky for me that
I did not live on a distant plantation, but in a town not so large that
the inhabitants were ignorant of each other's affairs. Bad as are the
laws and customs in a slaveholding community, the doctor, as a
professional man, deemed it prudent to keep up some outward show of

O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me! Reader, it
is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what
I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your
hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white
child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them
embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away
from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on
the little slave's heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to
sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to
womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny
sky. Scarcely one day of her life had been clouded when the sun rose on her
happy bridal morning.

How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her
childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of
love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery,
whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink.

In view of these things, why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the
north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right? Would that I
had more ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak! There are
noble men and women who plead for us, striving to help those who cannot
help themselves. God bless them! God give them strength and courage to go
on! God bless those, every where, who are laboring to advance the cause of

VI. The Jealous Mistress.

I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the
half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered among the
slaves of America. I would rather drudge out my life on a cotton
plantation, till the grave opened to give me rest, than to live with an
unprincipled master and a jealous mistress. The felon's home in a
penitentiary is preferable. He may repent, and turn from the error of his
ways, and so find peace; but it is not so with a favorite slave. She is not
allowed to have any pride of character. It is deemed a crime in her to wish
to be virtuous.

Mrs. Flint possessed the key to her husband's character before I was born.
She might have used this knowledge to counsel and to screen the young and
the innocent among her slaves; but for them she had no sympathy. They were
the objects of her constant suspicion and malevolence. She watched her
husband with unceasing vigilance; but he was well practised in means to
evade it. What he could not find opportunity to say in words he manifested
in signs. He invented more than were ever thought of in a deaf and dumb
asylum. I let them pass, as if I did not understand what he meant; and many
were the curses and threats bestowed on me for my stupidity. One day he
caught me teaching myself to write. He frowned, as if he was not well
pleased; but I suppose he came to the conclusion that such an
accomplishment might help to advance his favorite scheme. Before long,
notes were often slipped into my hand. I would return them, saying, "I
can't read them, sir." "Can't you?" he replied; "then I must read them to
you." He always finished the reading by asking, "Do you understand?"
Sometimes he would complain of the heat of the tea room, and order his
supper to be placed on a small table in the piazza. He would seat himself
there with a well-satisfied smile, and tell me to stand by and brush away
the flies. He would eat very slowly, pausing between the mouthfuls. These
intervals were employed in describing the happiness I was so foolishly
throwing away, and in threatening me with the penalty that finally awaited
my stubborn disobedience. He boasted much of the forbearance he had
exercised towards me, and reminded me that there was a limit to his
patience. When I succeeded in avoiding opportunities for him to talk to me
at home, I was ordered to come to his office, to do some errand. When
there, I was obliged to stand and listen to such language as he saw fit to
address to me. Sometimes I so openly expressed my contempt for him that he
would become violently enraged, and I wondered why he did not strike me.
Circumstanced as he was, he probably thought it was better policy to be
forebearing. But the state of things grew worse and worse daily. In
desperation I told him that I must and would apply to my grandmother for
protection. He threatened me with death, and worse than death, if I made
any complaint to her. Strange to say, I did not despair. I was naturally of
a buoyant disposition, and always I had a hope of somehow getting out of
his clutches. Like many a poor, simple slave before me, I trusted that some
threads of joy would yet be woven into my dark destiny.

I had entered my sixteenth year, and every day it became more apparent that
my presence was intolerable to Mrs. Flint. Angry words frequently passed
between her and her husband. He had never punished me himself, and he would
not allow any body else to punish me. In that respect, she was never
satisfied; but, in her angry moods, no terms were too vile for her to
bestow upon me. Yet I, whom she detested so bitterly, had far more pity for
her than he had, whose duty it was to make her life happy. I never wronged
her, or wished to wrong her, and one word of kindness from her would have
brought me to her feet.

After repeated quarrels between the doctor and his wife, he announced his
intention to take his youngest daughter, then four years old, to sleep in
his apartment. It was necessary that a servant should sleep in the same
room, to be on hand if the child stirred. I was selected for that office,
and informed for what purpose that arrangement had been made. By managing
to keep within sight of people, as much as possible, during the day time, I
had hitherto succeeded in eluding my master, though a razor was often held
to my throat to force me to change this line of policy. At night I slept by
the side of my great aunt, where I felt safe. He was too prudent to come
into her room. She was an old woman, and had been in the family many years.
Moreover, as a married man, and a professional man, he deemed it necessary
to save appearances in some degree. But he resolved to remove the obstacle
in the way of his scheme; and he thought he had planned it so that he
should evade suspicion. He was well aware how much I prized my refuge by
the side of my old aunt, and he determined to dispossess me of it. The
first night the doctor had the little child in his room alone. The next
morning, I was ordered to take my station as nurse the following night. A
kind Providence interposed in my favor. During the day Mrs. Flint heard of
this new arrangement, and a storm followed. I rejoiced to hear it rage.

After a while my mistress sent for me to come to her room. Her first
question was, "Did you know you were to sleep in the doctor's room?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Who told you?"

"My master."

"Will you answer truly all the questions I ask?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Tell me, then, as you hope to be forgiven, are you innocent of what I have
accused you?"

"I am."

She handed me a Bible, and said, "Lay your hand on your heart, kiss this
holy book, and swear before God that you tell me the truth."

I took the oath she required, and I did it with a clear conscience.

"You have taken God's holy word to testify your innocence," said she. "If
you have deceived me, beware! Now take this stool, sit down, look me
directly in the face, and tell me all that has passed between your master
and you."

I did as she ordered. As I went on with my account her color changed
frequently, she wept, and sometimes groaned. She spoke in tones so sad,
that I was touched by her grief. The tears came to my eyes; but I was soon
convinced that her emotions arose from anger and wounded pride. She felt
that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had
no compassion for the poor victim of her husband's perfidy. She pitied
herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of
shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed. Yet
perhaps she had some touch of feeling for me; for when the conference was
ended, she spoke kindly, and promised to protect me. I should have been
much comforted by this assurance if I could have had confidence in it; but
my experiences in slavery had filled me with distrust. She was not a very
refined woman, and had not much control over her passions. I was an object
of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not
expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I
was placed. I could not blame her. Slaveholders' wives feel as other women
would under similar circumstances. The fire of her temper kindled from
small-sparks, and now the flame became so intense that the doctor was
obliged to give up his intended arrangement.

I knew I had ignited the torch, and I expected to suffer for it afterwards;
but I felt too thankful to my mistress for the timely aid she rendered me
to care much about that. She now took me to sleep in a room adjoining her
own. There I was an object of her especial care, though not to her especial
comfort, for she spent many a sleepless night to watch over me. Sometimes I
woke up, and found her bending over me. At other times she whispered in my
ear, as though it was her husband who was speaking to me, and listened to
hear what I would answer. If she startled me, on such occasions, she would
glide stealthily away; and the next morning she would tell me I had been
talking in my sleep, and ask who I was talking to. At last, I began to be
fearful for my life. It had been often threatened; and you can imagine,
better than I can describe, what an unpleasant sensation it must produce to
wake up in the dead of night and find a jealous woman bending over you.
Terrible as this experience was, I had fears that it would give place to
one more terrible.

My mistress grew weary of her vigils; they did not prove satisfactory. She
changed her tactics. She now tried the trick of accusing my master of
crime, in my presence, and gave my name as the author of the accusation. To
my utter astonishment, he replied, "I don't believe it; but if she did
acknowledge it, you tortured her into exposing me." Tortured into exposing
him! Truly, Satan had no difficulty in distinguishing the color of his
soul! I understood his object in making this false representation. It was
to show me that I gained nothing by seeking the protection of my mistress;
that the power was still all in his own hands. I pitied Mrs. Flint. She was
a second wife, many years the junior of her husband; and the hoary-headed
miscreant was enough to try the patience of a wiser and better woman. She
was completely foiled, and knew not how to proceed. She would gladly have
had me flogged for my supposed false oath; but, as I have already stated,
the doctor never allowed any one to whip me. The old sinner was politic.
The application of the lash might have led to remarks that would have
exposed him in the eyes of his children and grandchildren. How often did I
rejoice that I lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each other!
If I had been on a remote plantation, or lost among the multitude of a
crowded city, I should not be a living woman at this day.

The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My
master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the
mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other
slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No,
indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences.

My grandmother could not avoid seeing things which excited her suspicions.
She was uneasy about me, and tried various ways to buy me; but the
never-changing answer was always repeated: "Linda does not belong to _me_.
She is my daughter's property, and I have no legal right to sell her." The
conscientious man! He was too scrupulous to _sell_ me; but he had no
scruples whatever about committing a much greater wrong against the
helpless young girl placed under his guardianship, as his daughter's
property. Sometimes my persecutor would ask me whether I would like to be
sold. I told him I would rather be sold to any body than to lead such a
life as I did. On such occasions he would assume the air of a very injured
individual, and reproach me for my ingratitude. "Did I not take you into
the house, and make you the companion of my own children?" he would say.
"Have _I_ ever treated you like a negro? I have never allowed you to be
punished, not even to please your mistress. And this is the recompense I

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Online LibraryHarriet Ann JacobsIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself → online text (page 3 of 19)