Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, weaves together forms of oppression and the persistence of motherly love. Ignored for decades and labelled a work of fiction, during the Civil Rights Movement it reemerged as a heroic tale of resistance to patriarchy and racism. She shared with the world her experience with slavery because, as she explained, “[o]nly by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations.”
Born in bondage in 1813, Harriet was cursed by her own sexuality and beauty. As she explained “[t]hat which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.” Her degradation included the duel challenge of, as a child, having to avoid both the crude sexual advances of her licentious owner, Mr. Norcom, and the jealous rage of Mrs. Norcom. Harriet became a “consensual” concubine of a white lawyer, Samuel Sawyer, as protection from her unstable owner. The two children that resulted became Norcom’s property.
Threatening to sell her children away should she resist further sexual harassment, Norcom fumed at Harriet’s resolve. In 1835, when the situation became unbearable, Harriet ran away, hiding nearby with a neighbor and then in a swamp, hoping Norcom would give up and sell her children to Sawyer. Instead his obsession drove him to travel north on multiple occasions to recapture her.
Little did he know that Harriet settled into a tiny crawl space in her grandmother’s attic. She lived above her children who were unaware of her presence. Tormented by the heat, stuffiness, and darkness of her imprisonment in a 9’ by 7’ crawlspace no more than 3 feet high, Jacobs felt joy when seeing her children in the yard through a hole she bore in the wall.
She endured the “torture to a mother’s heart” of being unable to comfort her children when they were in pain, exiled to “that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years.” When she did finally escape north, she risked her newly won freedom by appearing publicly as an abolitionist. During the Civil War, she moved to D.C. to nurse Black soldiers, raise money for Black refugees from the south, and open an African American free school.
- Lesson #255: When Jacobs first published parts of her narratives, she did so under the pen name of Linda Brent, and changed other names to protect those she loved.
- Lesson #256: It might be easy to think of Mr. Sawyer as a hero since his sexual relationship with Harriet partially shielded her from more drastic abuse by her owner. But Sawyer never did free her children, and certainly supported the institution that enslaved Harriet when he later served as a U.S. Representative from North Carolina.
- Lesson #257: When Harriet originally ran away from Norcom, he posted the following advertisement: “$300 REWARD! Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent girl, named Linda, 21 years of age.”
- Lesson #258: In 1853, when former First Lady Julia Tyler wrote a defense of slavery entitled “The Women of England vs. the Women of America,”, Jacobs responded by publishing a letter in the New York Tribune which was signed simply, “Fugitive.”
- Lesson# 259: When a Japanese translation of Jacobs’ book was finally published in 2013, it became a long-standing hit. Some contend that is because Japan is struggling with its own issues of both race and sexism. One article pointed out that Japan is not racially diverse (98% of its citizens are ethnically Japanese), and is currently ranked 114 out of 144 countries in gender equality. In addition, in Japan, only one in five victims of sexual assault even report it to the police. Are the similar dynamics of increasing racism and sexism in the United State the reason why Harriet Jacobs is increasingly mentioned in our media?
- Lesson #260: Throughout the narrative about her challenging life, Jacobs seems to have remained remarkably humble, sensitive, and generous. She seemed to have overcome hate, perhaps due to her grandmother, whom she credits in her closing as offering her solace “like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.” Or perhaps she simply determined that hate was no place she wanted to be. As she explained, “Reader, did you ever hate? I hope not. I never did but once; and I trust I never shall again. Somebody called it ‘the atmosphere of hell;’ and I believe it so.”