The story of Harriet Jacobs is one of the most compelling works of literature published in the nineteenth-century. Hers is the narrative of physical torture and psychological abuse coupled with triumphs over adversity in a southern world where oppression was the norm. From the outset, Jacobs made it clear that her “narrative was no fiction ( 3). ” Jacobs’s chronicling of her experiences, like that of so many other countless enslaved people, was cathartic. Remembering and writing made it possible for her to take responsibility for the events surrounding her life and, in so doing, begin the process of healing.
One could argue that in publishing her critique she had led an insurrection, an act of defiance not easily thwarted in the safer haven of the north. Jacobs’s tale is distinct from other slave narratives of the period in that her analytical framework places gender at the center of the discussion. In her work, women, in general, black women, in particular, constitute what editor Nell Irvin Painter describes as a “self-consciously gendered and thoroughly feminist ( IX) story.
” The Jacobs narrative is also an intriguing examination of the slave system. Jacobs’s project was to alert and recruit northern women in her effort to expose the “foul” system that indelibly harmed its victims white and black. According to her editor: this Peculiar phase of slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. ( 6) The significance of Jacobs’s work is that it raised consciousness.
It forced northern white men to publicly oppose their southern white counterparts while the project itself relieved her of constantly being haunted by a life lived in shame and humiliation. The Jacobs narrative is a slave girl’s story embedded in a woman’s discussion about freedom. Harriet Ann Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina on the Chowan River located near the Albemarle Sound in the eastern portion of the state. It was a region famous for its large planter class, many of whom owned huge plantations with numerous slaves.
She, and her brother John, were the offspring of Elijah, a skilled carpenter, and Delilah. Elijah and Delilah Jacobs, the slaves of a white farmer, managed to keep the family together aided by Molly Horniblow, Delilah’s mother, a chef, and a respected and influential member of the Edenton community. At the age of six, after the death of her mother in 1819, Jacobs went to live with Margaret Horniblow, a white mistress who taught her to sew, read, and write.
In 1825 Margaret died and, in 1826, Elijah passed away. She was then transferred to Margaret’s sister’s three year old daughter, and the niece of her nemesis, Dr. James Norcom. Dr. Norcom who appears as Dr. Flint in the story psychologically abused Jacobs when a young girl in the Norcom household. In protection of her life and reputation, she voluntarily became sexually involved with a prominent white lawyer in Edenton, Samuel Treadwell Sawyer. Together they produced two children, Joseph and Louisa Matilda.
Because slavery was both a labor and social system, their children belonged to Norcom although Sawyer would later purchase them and Jacobs’s brother, John. But in a drastic attempt to protect her and her children from the wrath of both Mr. and Mrs. Norcom, Jacobs hid in the crawlspace of Grandmother Molly’s house for seven years during which time she perfected her reading and writing skills, and nurtured her children. In 1842 Harriet escaped the bondage of slavery by going to New York and later Boston.
In the north she reunited with her children and, although technically free, she continued to live in fear of being captured by slave patrols following the mandates of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law that allowed southern masters to recapture their runaway “property” and re-enslave them. Luckily for Jacobs that, in 1852, her employer, Cornelia Grinnell Willis, purchased her freedom from the Norcoms and it was during this period that Amy Post, a Quaker and abolitionist, convinced her to tell the story of her slavery and freedom.
Post, with whom Jacobs had confided, may have been successful because Harriet Beecher Stowe had refused her (Jacob’s) suggestion that she serve as an amanuensis. Later she met abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child, who aided Jacobs in completing what would be the single most important work in her career; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published pseudonymously as Linda Brent in 1861. The book brought Jacobs some measure of fame particularly with northern women concerned about the amoral activities associated with the south’s “Peculiar Institution. ”
Not distracted by her literary success, Jacobs continued to support the cause of freedom by assisting her daughter in aiding Union soldiers during the Civil War. She later established a Free School in Alexandria, Virginia, traveled south on numerous occasions, and made one note worthy trip to England. She ended her long life as a former slave girl by becoming a relief worker in Washington, D. C. where she died on March 7, 1897. It was only fitting that Jacobs’s life would end in the nation’s capitol where just miles away stood one of the largest slave auctioneers in the union.
Much like the slaves who were sold, she undressed and exposed the events of her life for all to see. She was direct and deliberate in her delineation of the facts. She not only showed how she was used as a sexual object but also revealed how she used her sexuality to determine who would be her master in bed. Her story of family and motherhood highlighted the falsity in the notion that slaves were inhuman and therefore had no capacity to love or be loved. Jacobs’s essay is also about white women who lived and slept with masters who violated young female slaves.
They also endured the public humiliation and hatred which stemmed from the children that resulted from these plantation liaisons. What an awful situation, she wrote, “to wake up in the dead of night and find a jealous woman bending over you (38). ” Yet when Jacobs found a free black man whom she loved and who loved her, old Master Norcom, forty years her senior, refused to allow them to marry but, instead, offered to build Jacobs a hut. Plantation slavery was a world in which even an enslaved woman’s beauty could be a curse. According to Jacobs, “if God has bestowed beauty upon her it will prove her greatest curse (31).
” Jacobs showed her audiences, north and south, what it meant to have alternatives and choices. The privilege of choosing a lover that met with her satisfaction, to run away or stay, to give birth, and the privilege of deciding to write a scathing indictment of the system that stole her innocence are themes that resonated with Jacobs’s readers. Her work reminds us that freedom is never free and that the greatest price may have been her memories of oppression. Works Cited Painter, Nell Irvin, ed. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. New York: Penguin Books, 2000 .