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Historical Context in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Historical Context Examples in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:

"sufficient food..."   (Chapter I)

Many slave women had to act as wet nurses for their white mistresses’ infants. (Wet nurses are responsible for breastfeeding infants.) Many slave women had children of their own but were expected to nurse their mistresses’ infants first, leaving little food for their own children.

"bloodhounds..."   (Chapter VI)

A “bloodhound” is a breed of dog with a keen sense of smell, originally bred for hunting deer, boar, and people. Here, Linda calls northerners “bloodhounds” to insinuate that they hunt runaway slaves like dogs—a reference to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all escaped slaves found in the North to be sent back to their owners. Abolitionists even nicknamed this act the “Bloodhound Act” because of the hunting that came from it.

"the Inquisition..."   (Chapter VI)

The Inquisition of the early Middle Ages was a period of time in which the Roman Catholic Church established institutions to investigate heresy. “Heresy” is an opinion or doctrine that is maintained in opposition to the church. Anyone found guilty of heresy was fined, imprisoned, or put to death. There have been several Inquisitions in history, with the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century being one of the most infamous. Here, Linda compares the secrets that slaveholders kept to those secrets kept by heretics during the Inquisition.

"the Free States..."   (Chapter VII)

Before the Civil War, American states were separated into two categories, Free States and slave states. The free states had prohibited slavery and were mostly located in the North. At the beginning of the Civil War, the free states included Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Oregon, and California. While the Free States offered hope of a better life to many slaves, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was notably still in effect. Even those freed by their owners found trouble in the Free States as prejudice against slaves was rampant.

"Queen Justice..."   (Chapter VIII)

The Queen Justice mentioned here is most likely a reference to Lady Justice. Lady Justice is an allegorical personification of the ideal of justice, often portrayed with a blindfold over her eyes to represent the idea that justice is blind and should be applied to everyone regardless of wealth, power, or other such status.

"the President..."   (Chapter VIII)

Jacobs began writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853, and the book was published in 1861. During this period, three US presidents allowed slavery to remain an institution: Millard Fillmore who served from 1850–1853, Franklin Pierce who served from 1853–1857, and James Buchanan who served from 1857–1861. President Abraham Lincoln finally dealt with slavery by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

"abolitionists..."   (Chapter VIII)

The noun “abolitionist” refers to someone who advocates for an immediate end to a particular practice or institution. In Jacobs’s time, abolitionists demanded an immediate end to the slave trade and the emancipation of all African slaves. The abolitionist movement greatly developed in the 1830s, following the Second Great Awakening. White folks and freed slaves worked together to convince Americans of the sins they were committing as long as slavery was kept intact. The abolitionist movement continued until 1870 when the right to vote was extended to African American men.

"Mason and Dixon's line..."   (Chapter VIII)

The Mason-Dixon line is the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Originally created to settle a land dispute in the 1760s, the Mason-Dixon line became important during the Civil War when it became a symbol of the separation between Northern “Free States” and Southern “Slave States”.

"market..."   (Chapter IX)

This statement reveals much about slavery. First, slavery is an industry. Slave owners would impregnate their female slaves to sell the children at the slave market. Slaves and their children were only thought of as property to be bought and sold. Second, Jacobs was writing in a male-dominated society. While acceptable for white men to sleep with black women, it was unacceptable for white women to sleep with black men. White women were expected to remain pure and virtuous—sleeping with a black man would mean that they no longer fit this description. Third, another hypocrisy of slavery centers on which babies survived and which did not. Jacobs says that babies born of a black mother were acceptable to be sold on the market. But, babies born of a white mother were usually smothered as they represented impurity.

"cotton gin..."   (Chapter IX)

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. It was used to separate cotton fibers from the seeds. Prior to its creation, slaves had to manually separate the fibers from the seeds, which was difficult, slow work. The pods that contain the cotton were sharp and often cut hands. The cotton gin proved useful and valuable; the production of cotton increased, which called for an increased number of slaves to plant and harvest the cotton.

"Sometimes I wished that he might die in infancy..."   (Chapter XI)

This statement offers insight into what slave mothers felt when they gave birth to a child. Linda expresses the wish that her child would die before having to grow up and endure the life of a slave. It is well documented that the life of a slave was filled with pain, both physical and emotional. Linda wanted to save her child from such a life. Her wish for her child to die rather than live a slave’s life offers some insight into how truly terrible slavery was.

"“South Side View of Slavery,”..."   (Chapter XIII)

This is a reference to the book “A South Side View of Slavery” by Nehemiah Adams, published in 1854. This book follows a northerner’s three-month visit to the South and his encounters with slavery. The book concludes that most slaves are content to live and work as slaves and that, as a whole, slavery is a harmless institution. This conclusion is false. Jacobs explains that slaveholders knew that people from the North questioned the legitimacy of slavery but when questioned they were able to cover up the injustices.

"Servants, be obedient..."   (Chapter XIII)

This is a quotation from the New Testament, specifically from the Letter to the Ephesians 6:5. When used in this context, this quotation gives the preacher a moral rationale for slavery. The preacher interprets this quotation to imply that slaves are inherently sinners, and that they must continue to work in order to redeem themselves in the eyes of God. Southern slaveholders interpreted the bible in this way to justify the continued existence of slavery.

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