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Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897

Harriet Jacobs, daughter of Delilah, the slave of Margaret Horniblow, and Daniel Jacobs, the slave of Andrew Knox, was born in Edenton, North Carolina, in the fall of 1813. Until she was six years old Harriet was unaware that she was the property of Margaret Horniblow. Before her death in 1825, Harriet's relatively kind mistress taught her slave to read and sew. In her will, Margaret Horniblow bequeathed eleven-year-old Harriet to a niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. Since Mary Norcom was only three years old when Harriet Jacobs became her slave, Mary's father, Dr. James Norcom, an Edenton physician, became Jacobs's de facto master. Under the regime of James and Maria Norcom, Jacobs was introduced to the harsh realities of slavery. Though barely a teenager, Jacobs soon realized that her master was a sexual threat.

From 1825, when she entered the Norcom household, until 1842, the year she escaped from slavery, Harriet Jacobs struggled to avoid the sexual victimization that Dr. Norcom intended to be her fate. Although she loved and admired her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free black woman who wanted to help Jacobs gain her freedom, the teenage slave could not bring herself to reveal to her unassailably upright grandmother the nature of Norcom's threats. Despised by the doctor's suspicious wife and increasingly isolated by her situation, Jacobs in desperation formed a clandestine liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a white attorney with whom Jacobs had two children, Joseph and Louisa, by the time she was twenty years old. Hoping that by seeming to run away she could induce Norcom to sell her children to their father, Jacobs hid herself in a crawl space above a storeroom in her grandmother's house in the summer of 1835. In that "little dismal hole" she remained for the next seven years, sewing, reading the Bible, keeping watch over her children as best she could, and writing occasional letters to Norcom designed to confuse him as to her actual whereabouts. In 1837 Sawyer was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Although he had purchased their children in accordance with their mother's wishes, Sawyer moved to Washington, D.C. without emancipating either Joseph or Louisa. In 1842 Jacobs escaped to the North by boat, determined to reclaim her daughter from Sawyer, who had sent her to Brooklyn, New York, to work as a house servant.

For ten years after her escape from North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs lived the tense and uncertain life of a fugitive slave. She found Louisa in Brooklyn, secured a place for both children to live with her in Boston, and went to work as a nursemaid to the baby daughter of Mary Stace Willis, wife of the popular editor and poet, Nathaniel Parker Willis. Norcom made several attempts to locate Jacobs in New York, which forced her to keep on the move. In 1849 she took up an eighteen-month residence in Rochester, New York, where she worked with her brother, John S. Jacobs, in a Rochester antislavery reading room and bookstore above the offices of Frederick Douglass's newspaper, The North Star. In Rochester Jacobs met and began to confide in Amy Post, an abolitionist and pioneering feminist who gently urged the fugitive slave mother to consider making her story public. After the tumultuous response to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Jacobs thought of enlisting the aid of the novel's author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in getting her own story published. But Stowe had little interest in any sort of creative partnership with Jacobs. After receiving, early in 1852, the gift of her freedom from Cornelia Grinnell Willis, the second wife of her employer, Jacobs decided to write her autobiography herself.

In 1853 Jacobs took her first steps toward authorship, sending several anonymous letters to the New York Tribune. In the first, "Letter from a Fugitive Slave. Slaves Sold under Peculiar Circumstances" (June 21, 1853), Jacobs broached the sexually sensitive subject matter that would become the burden of her autobiography -- the sexual abuse of slave women and their mothers' attempts to protect them. By the summer of 1857 Jacobs had completed what she called in a June 21 letter to Post "a true and just account of my own life in Slavery." "There are some things that I might have made plainer I know," Jacobs admitted to Post, but, acknowledging her anxiety about telling her story to even as sympathetic and supportive a friend as Post, Jacobs continued, "I have left nothing out but what I thought the world might believe that a Slave Woman was too willing to pour out—that she might gain their sympathies." Still Jacobs hoped her book "might do something for the Antislavery Cause" both in England and the United States. To that end she engaged the editorial services of Lydia Maria Child, a prominent white antislavery writer, who, as she put it in an August 30, 1860 letter to Jacobs, "exercised my bump of mental order" on the manuscript, before contracting with a Boston publishing house, Thayer & Eldridge, to publish the book. Thayer & Eldridge went bankrupt before Jacobs's autobiography could be published, however. Persevering, Jacobs with the support of her antislavery friends saw to the publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl late in 1860 by a Boston printer. In 1861 a British edition of Incidents, entitled The Deeper Wrong; Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, appeared in London.

Praised by the antislavery press in the United States and Great Britain, Incidents was quickly overshadowed by the gathering clouds of civil war in America. Never reprinted in Jacobs's lifetime, it remained in obscurity until the Civil Rights and Women's Movements of the 1960s and 1970s spurred a reprint of Incidents in 1973. Not until the extensive archival work of Jean Fagan Yellin did Incidents begin to take its place as a major African American slave narrative. Published in Yellin's admirable edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harvard University Press, 1987), Jacobs's correspondence with Child helps lay to rest the long-standing charge against Incidents that it is at worst a fiction and at best the product of Child's pen, not Jacobs's. Child's letters to Jacobs and others make clear that her role as editor was no more than she acknowledged in her introduction to Incidents: to ensure the orderly arrangement and directness of the narrative, without adding anything to the text or altering in any significant way Jacobs's manner of recounting her story.

Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. Yet she was never as celebrated as Ellen Craft, a runaway from Georgia, who had become internationally famous for the daring escape from slavery that she and her husband, William, engineered in 1848, during which Ellen impersonated a male slaveholder attended by her husband in the role of faithful slave. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), the thrilling narrative of the Crafts' flight from Savannah to Philadelphia, was published under both of their names but has always been attributed to William's hand. Harriet Jacobs's autobiography, by contrast, was "written by herself," as the subtitle to the book proudly states. Even more astonishing than the Crafts' story, Incidents represents no less profoundly an African American woman's resourcefulness, courage, and dauntless quest for freedom. Yet nowhere in Jacobs's autobiography, not even on its title page, did its author disclose her own identity. Instead, Jacobs called herself "Linda Brent" and masked the important places and persons in her narrative in the manner of a novelist, renaming Norcom "Dr. Flint" and Sawyer "Mr. Sands" in her narrative. Despite her longing to speak out frankly and fully, Jacobs dreaded writing candidly about the obscenities of slavery, fear that disclosing these "foul secrets" would impute to her the guilt that should have been reserved for those, like Norcom, who hid behind such secrets. "I had no motive for secrecy on my own account," Jacobs insists in her preface to Incidents, but given the harrowing and sensational story she had to tell, the one-time fugitive felt she had little alternative but to shield herself from a readership whose understanding and empathy she could not take for granted.

Jacobs's primary motive in writing Incidents was to address white women of the North on behalf of thousands of "Slave mothers that are still in bondage" in the South. The mother of two slave children fathered by a white man, Jacobs faced a task considerably more complicated than that of any African American woman author before her. She wanted to indict the southern patriarchy for its sexual tyranny over black women like herself. But she could not do so without confessing with "sorrow and shame" her willing participation in a liaison that produced two illegitimate children. Resolved, she informs her female reader, "to tell you the truth. . . let it cost me what it may," Jacobs fully acknowledges her transgressions against conventional sexual morality when she was a "slave girl." At the same time, however, Jacobs articulates a bolder truth—that the morality of free white women has little ethical relevance or authority when applied to the situation of enslaved black women in the South.

White abolitionist propaganda in the antebellum era only rarely discussed how slave women resisted sexual exploitation. Jacobs, however, was determined to portray herself as an agent rather than a victim, a woman motivated by a desire for freedom much stronger than a fear of sexual retribution. "I knew what I did," Jacobs admits in an extraordinarily candid explanation of her decision to accept Sawyer as her lover, "and I did it with deliberate calculation." But "there is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you," Jacobs informs her reader. It was a desire for freedom, rather than a white lover, Jacobs argues, that ultimately impelled her affair with Sawyer. "I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I favored another. . . . I thought he would revenge himself by selling me, and I was sure my friend, Mr. Sands, would buy me." Such a "calculated" use of sexuality as both an instrument of "revenge" against Norcom and as a means to freedom via Sands may have unsettled Jacobs's northern readers as much as her confessions of sexual transgressions. But in the end, Jacobs claims, "in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others." Whatever her moral failings, Jacobs claims in recounting her sexual affairs as a slave woman, the traditional ideals of the nineteenth-century "cult of true womanhood" could not adequately address them.

Writing an unprecedented mixture of confession, self-justification, and societal expose, Harriet Jacobs turned her autobiography into a unique analysis of the myths and the realities that defined the situation of the African American woman and her relationship to nineteenth-century standards of womanhood. As a result, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl occupies a crucial place in the history of American women's literature in general and African American women's literature in particular. Published in the North, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl proved that until slavery was overthrown, only expatriate southern women writers, such as Jacobs and her contemporary, Angelina Grimke Weld, who left South Carolina to speak out against slavery in the South, could write freely about social problems in the South.

From 1862 to 1866 Jacobs devoted herself to relief efforts in and around Washington, D.C., among former slaves who had become refugees of the war. With her daughter Jacobs founded a school in Alexandria, Virginia, which lasted from 1863 to 1865, when both mother and daughter returned south to Savannah, Georgia, to engage in further relief work among the freedmen and freedwomen. The spring of 1867 found Jacobs back in Edenton, actively promoting the welfare of the ex-slaves and reflecting in her correspondence on "those I loved" and "their unfaltering love and devotion toward myself and [my] children." This sense of dedication and solidarity with those who had been enslaved kept Jacobs at work in the South until racist violence ultimately drove her and Louisa back to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, where in 1870 she opened a boarding house. By the mid-1880s Jacobs had settled with Louisa in Washington, D.C. Little is known about the last decade of her life. Harriet Jacobs died in Washington, D.C. on March 7, 1897.

Suggested further reading: William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story (1986); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood (1987); Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography (1989); Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White (1992); Carla L. Peterson, "Doers of the Word" African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (1995); Deborah Garfield and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays (1996); and Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004).

William L. Andrews

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