178 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Discussion questions for chapters I-XXII

Alexina Gillis; Emily Harris; and Daniel Harrison

Discussion 1

“I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property” (Chap II).

  • After the death of her father, Linda is forced to collect flowers for a party at the Flint’s instead of being allowed to grieve. What does this quote suggest about the treatment of enslaved families? What role does this treatment play in maintaining the systems of slavery?
  • How does the language and rhetoric used in this quote affect our interpretation of the text’s message?

Discussion 2

“But to the slave mother New Year’s Day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from her childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of a mother’s agonies” (Chap III).

  • How does motherhood and family play a strong role in this quote?
  • How does this quote describe the life of an enslaved woman and the impacts of the hardships they endured?
  • Does this quote apply to any scenario in modern day society?

Discussion 3

“If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely and shrink from the memory of it” (Chap V).

  • This quote explores how beauty can be a curse for enslaved women. What does this quote suggest about the unique experience of enslaved women?
  • How could this quote be perceived today when it comes to religion and how we view women in society? Is there a connection between religion and this attitude towards women?

Discussion 4

“The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies; and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness” (Chap VI).

  • What is the significance of love and marriage as they are represented in this quote? And how is the female experience represented?
  • How is this representation of marriage relevant to our society today?

Discussion 5

“It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation.” (Chap XII)

  • This quote discusses the oppression of lower-class white folks and the role they occupy in the systems of slavery. What does it suggest about the pervasive and corrupting social effects of this system?
  • How does this quote represent class dynamics, particularly within a capitalist system reliant on slavery?

Discussion 6

“You must forsake your sinful ways and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master—your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master” (Chap XIII).

  • The slaveholders used to use religion to instill fear in the enslaved people. They were told to obey the slaveowners, or else risk upsetting God. How does this affect our view of Christianity today?
  • How do you think this perspective on Christianity can be useful in rethinking early American literature? In teaching early American literature?


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Alexina Gillis; Emily Harris; and Daniel Harrison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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