Liberty or Death

by Jimmy Lu


A White slave master whips his Black female slave while she is chained to a pole.

Powerless in antebellum America, Black slaves resolved to make their voices heard through their writings. They wrote about their sufferings and their desire for liberty. Harriet Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl presents a narrative about her escape from slavery. Jacobs reveals her courage during her emotional and physical journey of escape; she would rather die pursuing liberty than to remain enslaved.

As a fugitive slave, Jacobs revealed her courage by rebelling against slavery. Jacobs’ attitude toward slavery is revealed:

“. . . my relatives. . . . advised me to return to my master . . . But such counsel had no influence on me. . . . ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my motto” (151).

Here, Jacobs refuses to submit to paternalistic slavery, in which the master knows what is “morally right” for his slave. Jacobs would rather die than to re-experience slavery. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville suggests the same desire for liberty among slaves:

“Slavery, now con- fined to a single tract of the civilized earth, attacked by Christianity as unjust . . . cannot survive. . . . If liberty be refused to the Negroes of the South, they will in the end forcibly seize it . . .” (40).

The morality of slavery was questioned by Christians who used theological arguments to oppose slavery. Slavery is implied as a backwards institution. As slaves like Jacobs resisted and desired liberty, Tocqueville suggests that they could overcome slavery and become agents of change. Although relatively powerless, slaves would rebel by outwitting their masters.

Subjected to paternalism, Jacobs rebelled and escaped using her cunningness. Jacobs views cunningness as a weapon:

“I went to sleep that night . . . I thanked the heavenly Father . . . Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants” (154).

Jacobs reveals her religiosity, which gave her hope as a fugitive slave. Despite their weakness, slaves attempted to outwit and escape from their masters, who underestimated their intellect. However, Jacobs would feel trapped along her journey and felt powerless.


A Black female slave wears iron horns and bells that wrap around her neck. Slave owners would make their slaves wear them in order to deter them from running away. The bell noises would allow slave owners to track their slaves.

In her quest for freedom, Jacobs was stuck in a risky situation that revealed her emotional challenges. Jacobs reveals her fear of her master:

“. . . and I at once concluded that he had come to seize me. . . . I heard approaching footsteps . . . I braced myself against the wall to keep from falling. . . . there stood my kind benefactress. I was too much overcome to speak . . .” (158-159).

The constant suspense, relief, and her fears are significant because they show her readers the emotional challenges of escaping slavery. This scene demonstrates the high risks that fugitive slaves like Jacobs courageously took in order to pursue liberty.

In her narrative, Jacobs reveals her courage and love of liberty by refusing to return. Jacobs attached significance to liberty by overcoming the emotional challenges as a fugitive slave. Slavery was becoming outdated among civilized nations, and slaves like Jacobs rebelled against it by outwitting and escaping their masters.

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