Harriet Jacobs wanted to tell her story, but knew she lacked the skills to write the story herself. She had learned to read while young and enslaved, but, at the time of her escape to the North in 1842, she was not a proficient writer. She worked at it, though, in part by writing letters that were published by the New York Tribune, and with the help of her friend, Amy Post. Her writing skills improved, and by 1858, she had finished the manuscript of her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
L. Maria Child, a prominent white abolitionist, agreed to edit Jacob's book, although she apparently did little to alter the text except to rearrange some sections, suggest the removal of one chapter, and add material to another. In a letter to a friend, Child wrote, "I abridged, and struck out superfluous words sometimes; but I don't think I altered fifty words in the whole volume."
The subject matter of the book -- sexual abuse of slave women -- was taboo in the mid-19th century, and Harriet had struggled over whether or not to expose herself so publicly. But she realized the significance of her story and so decided to go ahead, although she wrote under the psydonym, Linda Brent, and assigned fictitious names to everyone mentioned in the book. Child, too, was aware of the story's significance, writing in the book's introduction:
"I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others indelicate. This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn."
Harriet Ann Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. After both her mother, Delilah, and father, Elijah, died during Jacobs's youth, their maternal grandmother, Molly Horniblow, raised her and her younger brother, John. Jacobs learned to read, write, and sew under her first mistress, Margaret Horniblow, and hoped to be freed by her. However, when Jacobs was eleven years old, her mistress died and willed her to Dr. James Norcom, a binding decision that initiated a lifetime of suffering and hardship for Jacobs. Dr. Norcom represented later as Dr. Flint in Jacobs's narrative, sexually harassed and physically abused the teenaged Jacobs as long as she was a servant in his household. Jacobs warded off his advances by entering into an affair with a prominent white lawyer named Samuel Treadwell Sawyer and bearing him two children: Joseph (b. 1829) and Louisa Matilda (c. 1833-1913), who legally belonged to Norcom. Fearing Norcom's persistent sexual threats and hoping that he might relinquish his hold on her children; Jacobs hid herself in the storeroom crawlspace at her grandmother's house from 1835 until 1842. During those seven years Jacobs could do...