Sunday, April 6, 2014

Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Many American students read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and, with the release last year of 12 Years a Slave (based on Solomon Northrup's 1853 Memoir), still more people have become familiar with the peculiar horrors of American slavery, from the male perspective.  What the American public is less familiar with is the particular experiences of female slaves.  It is for this reason that Harriet Jacobs' 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is such an important document.  Reading Jacobs' narrative, the reader becomes acutely and painfully aware of the sexual abuse and family dysfunction that were common features of the female American slave experience.


Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813.  For the first six years of her life, she was unaware she was a slave.  The death of her mother, and a change of owners opened her eyes to her terrible position.  Despite the fact that her owner had promised her dying mother that she would remain with her family, Harriet was indeed sold.  Jacobs recalls this experience: "My mistress (her master) had taught me the precepts of God's Word: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.'  But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor."

Jacobs was sold to a Dr. Norcom, who physically and verbally abused her, and tried to sexually abuse her.  As a young woman, Jacobs fell in love with a free black man who lived nearby.  When she told her master of her desire to marry him, Dr. Norcom refused.  "I'll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly," he said, "If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will cowhide you both; and if I catch him lurking about my premises, I will shoot him as I would a dog.  Do you hear what I say?  I'll teach you a lesson about free niggers and marriage!"  When Jacobs tried to argue her case, the doctor struck her, and that was the end of it.  Regarding this tragic incident, Jacobs writes, "Why does the slave ever love?  Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?"  Here, we see another tragedy of slavery--the slaves were not free to love and marry who they wished, and this caused Jacobs to have to make terrible compromises and choices regarding love and sex.

As a defense against Dr. Norcom's sexual advances, Jacobs made the sad, but practical, choice of becoming sexually involved with a white lawyer in town, and bore him two children, occurrences which shielded her from Dr. Norcom's advances, but which also made her a pariah in the eyes of the community and her family.  When describing these events, Jacobs directly addresses her readers, particularly her female readers:

"But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!  If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home sheltered by laws; and I should had been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery.  I wanted to keep myself pure; and under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grip of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.  I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man."

One of the great insights of Jacobs' narrative is that slavery "confuses the principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible."  Many slave women were sexually abused by their masters, and had no redress or justice to protect them.  The cold, sad reality was that it was actually profitable for masters to rape their female slaves, since the law dictated that children of slave women were also slaves.  Jacobs writes of Dr. Norcom: "I had seen several women sold, with his babies at the breast."  So slavery not only compromised the morality of women, it also disrupted normal family relations, as mothers were often separated from their children.  When Jacobs gives birth to a daughter, she laments because "slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women."

When Dr. Norcom sold Jacobs, she escaped and took refuge at her grandmother's house, where she lived for seven years, hiding in a tiny storage room, with rats, mice, insects, and barely any light.  Her literal "ray of hope" during these years of hiding was a small hole bored in her compartment, where she could see her family, and could see life.  

Finally, she escaped to the north, where she was taken in by the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis, a popular writer and editor.  Even in the north, however, her position was perilous.  With the recently-passed Fugitive Slave Law, she was not safe from slave-catchers.  She lived in the shadows, like an undocumented immigrant today.  "I was thankful for the blessings of my lot," Jacobs recalls, "yet I could not always wear a cheerful countenance.  I was doing harm to no one; on the contrary, I was doing all the good I could in my small way; yet I could never go out to breathe God's free air without trepidation in my heart.  This seemed hard; and I could not think it was a right state of things in any civilized country."  Jacobs even fears going into churches, for fear of being caught and sent back to the south:

"There I sat, in that great city, guiltless of any crime, yet not daring to worship God in any of the churches.  I heard the bells ringing for the afternoon service, and, with contemptuous sarcasm, I said, 'Will the preachers take for their text, 'Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound?  or will they preach from the text 'Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you?'"

Finally, Cordelia Grinnell Willis, wife of Nathaniel Parker Willis, was able to purchase Jacobs' freedom, and eventually the freedom of her children, occurrences which brought great rejoicing, but also contemplation.  Jacobs recalls seeing the bill of sale of her purchase, and marvels that a human being could be sold, as property, even in the "free" north:

"The bill of sale!  Those words struck me like a blow.  So I was sold at last!  A human being being sold in the free city of New York!  The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.  It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States."

With her freedom, Jacobs began working on her Narrative, but had difficulty finding a publisher.  Finally, noted author Lydia Maria Child agreed to write a prefece, and to serve as editor, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861.  The outbreak of the Civil War made its abolitionist message less pressing, and the book sank from notice until the 1980s, "when interest in early writings by African American women, and superb biographical scholarship by Jean Fagin Yellin, restored the book and its author to view."

Jacobs ends her narrative with these words:

"It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.  I would gladly forget them if I could.  Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea."

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

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