Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Classic That Changed Me

What classic book has changed your view on life, social mores, political views, or religion?

Back in 2001, I took a basic history course at Baylor. While I remember very little of the course as a whole, what stands out vividly for me is a life-changing book. I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, and suddenly everything I thought I knew about slavery was different. 


To learn about slavery in the United States is to possibly become desensitized to it over time. Certainly, we all know it was horrible and morally corrupt. It's a time in our history for which we try to atone. But it wasn't until I read this book that I felt in my heart and my mind, how much those men and women suffered. I knew it intellectually, but to know it and recognize it is not the same as feeling it. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861 by Harriet Jacobs, using the pen name "Linda Brent." The book is an account of Jacobs's life as a slave, and the decisions and choices she made to gain freedom for herself and her children. It addresses the struggles and sexual abuse that young women slaves faced on the plantations including rape, the pressure to have sex at an early age, the selling of their children, and the treatment of female slaves by their mistresses.Jacobs began composing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl while living and working at Idlewild, the Hudson River home of writer and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis. Portions of the book were published in serial form in the New-York Tribune. (Summary adapted from Wikipedia.) 
The most touching part of this book, for me, was in learning of Brent's sacrifices to save her children from slavery. Through a somewhat elaborate plan, she hides in an attic crawl space no bigger than a coffin for seven years in hopes that her children will be sold elsewhere, and through various channels, sent to the North where they can be free. 

Seven years. In an attic the size of a coffin. Just let that sink in. 

Amazing book, and I'm so glad I read it. It's one I will never forget, and now I have the pleasure of teaching it to my own literature students. 


35 comments:

  1. This sounds like something I should read! The one book (not necessarily a classic) that opened my eyes about slavery was Toni Morrison's Beloved. It's been years since I read that novel, but it was so powerful, I can still picture dozens of scenes.

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    1. I read Beloved when I was much younger, and I don't think I really "got" it. I was struggling with the metaphorical parts of it. It's one I'd like to re-read now having a little more Morrison under my belt.

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  2. You are so right about how amazing this book is. I also read it in college and remember the amazing discussions my class had. It sits on my shelves and will do so forever.

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    1. Yep, now I just need to re-read it. It's been years, and it's so deserving of a re-read.

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  3. I haven't ever read this one. Will have to add it to my list. Wonderful review, Andi.

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    1. I had never heard of it before that college class, and I just loved it. It's such an easy style to read, and I was sucked right in.

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  4. How is it possible that I've never even heard of this? Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention, I want to go pick it up like right now!

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    1. I'm not surprised. This one really doesn't get much mention, which I think is just a tragedy. I hope you decide to give it a try!

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    2. I just found it on OpenLibrary.org - there are ebook versions available to borrow, too!

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  5. Did you ever read Aphra Behn's Oronoko? That one did it for me. I loved that book.

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    1. Heather, I've only read snippets. Not the same.

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  6. I'm wondering why I've never heard of this book.

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    1. It doesn't get nearly enough attention. Sadly.

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  7. Frederick Douglass's book had this kind of impact on me, but yeah, the Harriet Jacobs book is really painful to read. I'm glad that I read so many slave narratives in school, even though they are super upsetting.

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    1. I loved The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, too. Loved. I still have both on my shelves. I had a particularly good experience in college (same history class) researching Texas slave narratives. That was profoundly affecting as well.

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  8. Like Shannon, I hadn't heard of this, either. Such a shame. :(

    And wow. 7 years in an attic the size of a coffin?! That is... there just aren't words.

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    1. Can. You. Imagine? And of course since I've become a mother it's even more heart wrenching and horrifying.

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  9. I think there have been a lot of classics that changed me or my view on the world. One of them was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Another book I think about a lot is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which I read in middle school.

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    1. Indeed. I think most of the classics I've read have shaped me somehow -- whether it's the way I teach or think or even my perceptions of myself. This one was one of the largest light bulb moments. Sadly, I've never read Achebe. And I loved Frederick Douglass. It's another book I teach now.

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  10. This has been on my shelf for YEARS and I haven't read it yet. I think now would be a good time to.

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  11. I really need to read this. There's no question about it.

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    1. You do. You really do. Says the enabler.

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  12. How have I never heard of this! It's now a must read for me. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. You're welcome! It makes me happy that readers who hadn't heard of this book will now have it wedged into their minds a bit. ;)

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  13. I just read this recently, and I was really struck by it. I really don't know why this book doesn't get more attention, because it certainly deserves it. Thank you for telling more people about it!

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    1. I don't know either. It's such a great book.

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  14. I have this one on my Kindle but haven't read it yet. I will, though! I agree - it's so easy to get desensitized to slavery because you just know that it's wrong and it's over, etc. But there are some books that bring it so vividly to life and make you realize that it wasn't just the shackles and the beatings and the work for no pay - it truly was BELONGING to someone else and having no real control over your own life.

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    1. Exactly. Such an affecting book. I hope you can get to it soon.

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  15. I read this in college and it has definitely stuck with me. Surprisingly though, this is the first time I've heard of it since. I'm glad you did this post, because I think this is one of those historical gems that everyone should read.
    Around the time that I read it, I was researching my matrilineal ancestry. The farther back I could find (I think my great-great-great grandmother? Honestly I can't remember the number of generations between us) was a woman who was also named Harriet Jacobs. I know nothing about my Harriet, but it has always struck me how starkly different the two women's lives must have been, despite living in the same region and general time period, and sharing the same name.

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    1. Really??? That's a shame that it's mentioned so little. And that's a staggering realization -- how different two lives can be despite having so many similarities.

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  16. I have it and it's standing on my bookshelves. Will read it this year.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, or are as affected by it, as I was.

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  17. I need to add this one to my list. I love classics. One book that changed me was Uncle Tom's Cabin. I had dreaded reading it and for that reason, chose it for book club! We all marveled at how wonderful it was. I could have kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

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  18. I'm not even familiar with this one so I'll have to check it out. I remember reading Red Badge of Courage way, way back in the school days and it totally colored my thoughts on war ever since.

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