Home > Uncategorized > Incidents in the Life of a Strong Woman

Incidents in the Life of a Strong Woman

Today in class when we discussed Harriet Jacob’s ideas about freedom, we spent a while talking about an excerpt from Chapter 35 beginning “My answer was that…” and ending “we shall cease to be trampled under foot by our oppressors.” I find Jacob’s use of  depreciative terms toward the other colored people on the boat interesting. She claims that they “submit” to treatment. They should be “dissatisfied with themselves,” and in her concluding statement she seems to urge colored people to act so they don’t get “trampled” by the whites mistreating them. I feel like this language really uncovers how Jacobs feels about herself, in two ways. One way, it is reflective of how she was trampled down by Dr. Flint, enough so that she submitted to Mr. Sand’s attentions, and forever cast shame (in her eyes) upon herself. But in another way, these statement are very revelatory about her inner strength and determination. It reflects her resolve to be a free woman that no one can ever trample, no one can make submit, and a woman that has taken her shame and used it to empower herself against any judgement of others.  The multi layered richness of the prose in this auto-biography makes it quite a work of art.

However, one thing that has bothered me is the title of the book. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. It sounds almost quaint, like an understatement. Incident is defined by Dictionary dot com as:

1. an individual occurrence or event.

2 .a distinct piece of action, or an episode, as in a story or play.

3 .something that occurs casually in connection with something else.

4. something appertaining or attaching to something else.

5. an occurrence of seemingly minor importance, especially involving nations or factions between which relations are strained and sensitive, that can lead to serious consequences, as an outbreak of hostilities or a war: border incident; international incident.

6. an embarrassing occurrence, especially of a social nature.

I feel like none of these definitions really fit this narrative, except perhaps that the structure of the novel seems to be episodic. Why would Jacob’s understate her life? Even calling herself a ‘slave girl’ seems to be odd and understated. Perhaps it is another attempt to humble herself before the White Female Christian Audience? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated!



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. markcotham
    March 1, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    I’m in a Spanish class right now called History of the Spanish Language, where we discuss linguistic change a lot. I am continually amazed a how quickly the connotations of words can change. So perhaps the word “incidents” did not imply smallness or insignificance as you suggest in the 1800s. Just one theory. “Slave girl” does still seem odd to me, despite that sort of explanation, and rather demeaning.

  2. trilderos
    March 2, 2011 at 9:42 am

    To me, at least, the name almost seems ironic. In that, she is attempting to show just how ridiculous the terrible things she had to go through were. I don’t think it was meant to downplay her hardships at all. Though I could be incorrect and Mark could be right, as that would make sense.

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