Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation
This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Harriet Ann Jacobs. We will probably never know the date she was born; February 11, 1815, is engraved on her tombstone, but contemporary evidence (including a will in 1825 that transferred ownership of a “negro girl Harriet”) places her birth with near-certainty in 1813—probably during the late summer. Her mother died when she was six years old and, as was the case for many orphan-slaves of the era, the circumstances of her birth and childhood are hazy.
She was taught to read and write by her first mistress, who died when she was twelve—an event that changed the rest of her youth into an unending nightmare. The will left her to a three-year-old relative, whose parents became her new masters in a household that introduced her to the true barbarities of slavery. During the course of her subsequent captivity, other members of her family fled to the North. Her uncle Joseph Sawyer (Benjamin, in her account) attempted to escape, only to be captured, severely whipped, chained, and solitarily imprisoned “as an example to the rest of [the] slaves.” His second escape attempt succeeded. Harriet’s brother John (referred to as William in the narrative) also fled.
Jacobs herself eventually escaped to the North in 1842, the year before she turned thirty, and a decade later she began to float the idea of publishing her memoir. She first approached Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wanted to appropriate Jacobs’s story for a soon-to-be published collection of documents called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jacobs instead began including passages from her story in correspondence and publishing episodes in various newspapers, including Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, and she finally completed the manuscript in 1860. She then enlisted the aid of best-selling author Lydia Maria Child (primarily known to us today as the author of “Over the River and Through the Wood”), who copyedited the book, rearranged some of the sections, and deleted a final chapter about John Brown’s rebellion, which Child felt was superfluous to the story. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl appeared in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent and with a foreword by Child, who assured her readers several times that she had added nothing to the story (“Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction”). The book and its author enjoyed a limited celebrity among Northerners immediately after publication, but the memoir soon faded from view, its urgency and shocking content probably overwhelmed by the war and later by emancipation.
For over a century, Incidents was largely forgotten. Most academics concluded that the book had really been written by Child, perhaps based loosely on Jacobs’s life but “too melodramatic” (in the words of John Blassingame, one of the many unconvinced scholars) to be an actual slave narrative. In 1971 the historian Jean Fagan Yellin, having just finished her dissertation, embarked on three decades of extraordinary literary detective work that solved the mystery of authorship once and for all. She first located dozens of letters written by Jacobs, the style and content of which proved that the “novel” was indeed written by the former slave. Then, with the help of several archivists across the country, Yellin uncovered numerous historical documents identifying many of the people in the book and verifying the major events and many minor details. Professor Yellin then published her findings in 1987 in a new edition of Incidents—with the full support of the formerly skeptical Professor Blassingame. In 2004, having subsequently unearthed even more documentation confirming the truthfulness of Jacobs’s memoir, Yellin updated her research in an award-winning biography.
Note: The stanza of poetry on the first page is from Byron’s “The Lament of Tass” (1817).
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? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, “Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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