I discovered Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent in an African American Literature class. The popular antebellum slave narrative has haunted me for decades. I reread it whenever I felt sorry for myself and needed a kick in the ass. It reminded me whatever I was going through wasn’t that bad. And I would get through it.
Recently, I noticed parallels between Linda’s plight and the challenges the world is facing today. Maybe if we learned from Linda’s story, we’d be more thankful for our blessings, strive to correct injustices, and complain a little less.
This last year, the world careened through a variety of negative emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, and worries about the future. But Linda’s narrative shows it’s all about perspective and attitude. If we had an ounce of Linda Brent’s mental stamina, tenacity, resilience, and hope, it would soldier us through all of life’s inevitable difficulties and we’d come out of them stronger than we ever imagined.
With Little Warning, Her Entire World Changed
Linda Brent was born 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Although her mother passed away when Linda was six, she described her early childhood as a happy one. She was raised by her beloved maternal grandmother until their kind mistress died. At eleven-years-old, she was willed to Dr. Flint and his jealous wife. This was the beginning of Linda’s odyssey of pain, torment, and loss.
Dr. Flint bullied, sexually harassed, and physically abused Linda. He cornered her with lascivious propositions and veiled threats.
He couldn’t rape her in close proximity to his wary, envious wife. That would be foolish! Besides, the other slaves were gossipy, and he was a man-about-town! Instead, he tried to get Linda to consent to being his lover.
Linda refused him for years, but when she turned fifteen, his badgering became incessant.
By managing to keep within sight of people, as much as possible, during the day time, I had hitherto succeeded in eluding my master, though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to change this line of policy. At night I slept by the side of my great aunt, where I felt safe. She was an old woman, and had been in the family many years. Moreover, as a married man, and a professional man, he deemed it necessary to save appearances in some degree.
The Master Refused to Face Reality
Dr. Flint couldn’t believe Linda had no interest in him sexually or otherwise.
He believed Linda was just worried about what Mrs. Flint would think. His property holdings didn’t stop at his large plantation, he also owned land in town. He expected Linda to be pleased to learn he was building a house for her, well for them. It’d be their secret love nest.
Linda recoiled at the news.
Her ungratefulness irked him. What more could he do for that woman?
Linda didn’t waver. She vowed to never enter that house.
I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on, from day to day, through such a living death. I was determined that the master, whom I so hated and loathed, who had blighted the prospects of my youth, and made my life a desert, should not, after my long struggle with him succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the sake of defeating him.
Trying to Plan Anything Becomes Impossible
When talk in the neighborhood alerted Mr. Sands, a white, unmarried gentleman, to Linda’s circumstances, his interest was piqued. He went to Linda’s grandmother for more information.
He wanted to do whatever he could for the fifteen-year-old slave with the tormenting master. He wrote to her and found ways to see her. Soon, he was smitten.
For Linda, the attention of a nice, prosperous white man was a heady experience. Fueled by passion, revenge, and the hope Mr. Sands may improve her future, she returned his affections.
She described feeling triumphant when she told Dr. Flint she was pregnant, certain, in his fury, he’d put her on the auction block. She hoped he would! Then, Mr. Sands could buy her and she’d be set free!
Dr. Flint was furious alright, but he wasn’t about to sell her. And as for her baby? Well, that was his property too! Now that a child was involved, he had additional leverage to bend her to his will.
Linda felt wretched when she realized the ramifications of what she had done.
Dr. Flint made another indecent proposal. He’d forget and forgive all her sins if she became his willing lover and let him care for her and her son. He’d even set them free.
In a heated exchange, her stark refusal to satisfy his desires was the verbal equivalent of flipping him the bird. Besides, she knew he was lying about freeing her.
In response, he told her she could leave, but reminded her that she and her baby legally belonged to him.
Her grandmother gave her refuge. Stress and worry probably contributed to her son’s premature birth. They were both sickly for some time.
Dr. Flint frequently checked in on their welfare. The visits were peppered with promises, threats, deals, and insults. He was the quintessential stalker.
There was No Getting Away from the Torment
After hearing all the humiliating gossip about her husband and Linda, Mrs. Flint swore she would kill Linda if she ever came back.
That was fine with Linda.
But Dr. Flint still had their empty love nest waiting, and his thirst to control her remained strong. He often threatened to sell her child if she didn’t submit.
Linda remained resolute.
When she became pregnant again, Dr. Flint cut her hair close to her scalp in retaliation. Like all abusers, he tried to break her down. He visited her every day to cajole, insult, degrade, and physically abuse.
Her second child was a girl.
When Mr. Flint went out of town, Linda hastened to have the baptism. Afterward, Linda’s father’s old mistress invited them back to her house.
She clasped a gold chain round my baby’s neck. I thanked her for this kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold.
When Linda’s son, Benjamin, turned six, and her daughter, Ellen, was a toddler, Dr. Flint issued Linda an ultimatum. She either went willingly to live in their love nest or he would send her and her children to his son’s plantation. Mr. Flint’s son was as bad, if not worse, than his father.
She had a week to decide.
Linda felt she had no choice. If she ran off, maybe Dr. Flint would want to sell her children. Then, Mr. Sands could secretly buy them. Mr. Sands would free her children. He’d promised!
As she planned her escape, Linda couldn’t listen to all the falsehoods Dr. Flint loved to spew.
Slaveholders pride themselves upon being honorable men; but if you were to hear the enormous lies they tell their slaves, you would have small respect for their veracity. When they visit the north, and return home, they tell their slaves of the runaways they have seen, and describe them to be in the most deplorable condition.
With the help of a white sympathizer and a network of family and friends, Linda took refuge in a white woman’s attic. There were several attempts to sneak her out on a boat headed north. Weather conditions and other things foiled their plans.
They couldn’t impose on the white lady any longer. It put a stranger in too much danger.
Eventually, Linda’s uncle constructed a hidden trapdoor in the small garret above her grandmother’s shed. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best solution for now.
Linda Hunkered Down
Linda moved into her new dwelling in the dark of night. As was typical in the South, the roof was covered only in shingles. The garret was nine feet by seven, the roof’s highest point was three feet. The trapdoor was above a storeroom which stood just off the street in front of Linda’s grandmother’s house.
The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on my other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them.
She carved a one-inch hole to allow sunlight and air through. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
Red, biting insects “fine as a needle’s point” made her skin burn. Her grandmother concocted teas, balms, and poultices. Eventually, she found a way to get rid of them.
The intense summer heat made Linda feel trapped inside a furnace. The small peephole didn’t allow a breeze. She was thankful it was too hot for mosquitoes.
Dr. Flint often checked in with her grandmother to find out if she had heard any news. His search for Linda grew more intensive. He made several trips to New York and other Free States to no avail.
Once, after returning from another fruitless search, Linda recounts this exchange:
When he passed our house the next morning, Benny was standing at the gate. He had heard them say that he had gone to find me, and he called out, “Dr. Flint, did you bring my mother home? I want to see her.”
The doctor stamped his foot at him in a rage, and exclaimed, “Get out of the way, you little damned rascal! If you don’t, I’ll cut off your head.”
There’s No Relief in Sight
Dr. Flint was still actively searching for Linda as Autumn passed and turned into Winter.
The winters there are not so long, or so severe, as in northern latitudes; but the houses are not build to shelter from cold and my little den was peculiarly comfortless … but with all my precautions, my shoulders and feet were frostbitten.
Linda kept busy by sewing clothing and little toys for her children to receive on Christmas. Her grandmother also brought her books to read. Both these activities she managed to do with the sliver of light her one-inch peephole allowed.
Several years passed, and it still wasn’t safe for Linda to make her escape. She often thought she would die soon, only to watch another season pass through her tiny window to the world.
The Inactivity Took Its Toll
By her account, Linda only got down through the trapdoor and walked around a handful of times. Her space was not large enough for her to sit up, much less stand. This took a terrible toll on her body and she grew very sick.
My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened and I lost the power of speech. Of course, it was impossible, under the circumstances, to summon any physician.
She ended up unconscious and then became delirious.
Her brother went to a doctor, pretending to have all of her symptoms. He then gave the prescribed medications to Linda.
Loneliness and Detachment from Friends and Family
Linda watched her children playing in her grandmother’s yard. She could hear their conversations and saw them laughing or crying. How she wanted to reach out and hold them in her arms! To kiss their cheeks and tousle their hair!
Yet, she had to stay strong. She knew it was a battle of wills between her and Dr. Flint. If she revealed herself, there was no chance her and her children could be free. She reminded herself it would be selfish and unwise to put them all at risk. (Sound familiar?)
Linda Brent remained in her self-imposed prison for seven long years.
I’m not going spoil it, but her time in the garret was not the end to Linda’s incredible fight for freedom.
It’s hard to fathom the hardships Linda Brent faced, yet she held onto her dream. Her indomitable spirit, unwavering faith, and fierce love for her children held her up when she wanted to fall down.
We have much to learn from survivors like Linda who never give up, keep fighting for what they believe in, and strive to make their world a better — and more equitable — space.
Those lessons are particularly needed today.