“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs edited by Koritha Mitchell
July 1, 2023
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs was enslaved in the early 19th century in Edenton, North Carolina, by a sexual predator and religious hypocrite who intended to build a special cabin to hold Jacobs out of reach of his wife. Another white enslaver taught Jacobs to read and write. Jacobs used that skill, her intuition, and her intelligence to protect her body, her dignity, and her children. Once she had gotten herself to relative safety, she wrote one of the most important books of the American abolition: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Jacobs became the first formerly enslaved African American woman to publish a book-length account of her life. In crafting her coming-of-age story, she insisted upon biographical accuracy and bold creativity—telling the truth while giving herself and others fictionalized names. She also adapted conventions from two other popular genres: the sentimental novel and the slave narrative. Then, despite facing obstacles not encountered by white women and Black men, she orchestrated the book’s publication and became a traveling bookseller in an effort to inspire passive Americans to support the abolition of slavery.
Engaging with the latest research on Jacobs’s life and work, this edition helps readers to understand the magnitude of her achievement in writing, publishing, and distributing her life story. However, it also shows how this monumental accomplishment was only the beginning of her contributions, given her advocacy work over the nearly 40 years that she lived after its publication. As a survivor of sexual abuse who became an advocate, Jacobs laid a foundation for activist movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. This edition also features six appendices, placing at readers’ fingertips resources that further illuminate the issues raised by Jacobs’s remarkable life and legacy.
Join us for this summer’s Book Club to read Koritha Mitchell’s reissuing of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and for our discussion as we talk about the power of embodied experience, public history, and the complexities of visiting sites of American slavery. —Editor-in-Chief Michelle Chihara
Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian, cultural critic, and professor of English at Ohio State University. She is the author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930, and her edited edition of the first book-length autobiography by a formerly enslaved African American woman, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), will be published in June. Her public commentary has appeared in outlets such asTime, CNN, and Good Morning America, and her book From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture was named a Best Book of 2020 by Ms. Magazine and Black Perspectives. On Twitter, she’s @ProfKori.
Join our Book Club today to get Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl + our next three editor-curated selections, as well as access to our quarterly discussions hosted by Michelle. To view all Book Club picks, please visit the LARB Book Club page.
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