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Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897 and Lydia Maria Francis Child, 1802-1880
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself
Boston: Published for the Author, 1861, c1860.


Harriet Ann Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. After both her mother, Delilah, and father, Elijah, died during Jacobs's youth, she and her younger brother, John, were raised by their maternal grandmother, Molly Horniblow. Jacobs learned to read, write, and sew under her first mistress, Margaret Horniblow, and hoped to be freed by her. However, when Jacobs was eleven years old, her mistress died and willed her to Dr. James Norcom, a binding decision that initiated a lifetime of suffering and hardship for Jacobs. Dr. Norcom, represented later as Dr. Flint in Jacobs's narrative, sexually harassed and physically abused the teenaged Jacobs as long as she was a servant in his household. Jacobs warded off his advances by entering into an affair with a prominent white lawyer named Samuel Treadwell Sawyer and bearing him two children: Joseph (b. 1829) and Louisa Matilda (c. 1833-1913), who legally belonged to Norcom. Fearing Norcom's persistent sexual threats and hoping that he might relinquish his hold on her children, Jacobs hid herself in the storeroom crawlspace at her grandmother's house from 1835 until 1842. During those seven years Jacobs could do little more than sit up in the cramped space. She read, sewed, and watched over her children from a chink in the roof, waiting for an opportunity to escape to the North. Jacobs was finally able to make her way to New York City by boat in 1842 and was eventually reunited with her children there. Even in New York, however, Jacobs was at the mercy of the Fugitive Slave Law, which meant that wherever Jacobs lived in the United States, she could be reclaimed by the Norcoms and returned to slavery at any time. Around 1852, her employer, Cornelia Grinnell Willis, purchased her freedom from the Norcoms.

Jacobs's decision to write her autobiography stemmed from correspondence with her friend, Amy Post, a Quaker abolitionist and feminist activist. Jacobs had befriended Post in Rochester, New York in the late 1840s after she had moved there to join the abolitionist movement with her brother John. Jacobs confided her past to Post, who encouraged her to write it down herself after Harriet Beecher Stowe rejected Jacobs's request for an amanuensis. In 1861, with the aid of white abolitionist editor Lydia Maria Child, Jacobs published her narrative entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl pseudonymously as "Linda Brent." Jacobs's surviving correspondence with Child validates Incidents as entirely Jacobs's work, with only minor editing on Child's part. Despite her use of a pseudonym, Jacobs did gain fame for a time after its publication. She entered into public service with her daughter during the 1860s, aiding refugees during the Civil War and opening the Jacobs Free School in Alexandria, Virginia. After several trips south and one abroad to England, Jacobs reestablished herself as a relief worker in Washington, D.C. in the 1880s and died there on March 7, 1897.

Harriet Jacobs's autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), is the most widely-read female antebellum slave narrative. In recounting her life experiences before she was freed, Jacobs offered her contemporary readers a startlingly realistic portrayal of her sexual history while a slave. Although several male authors of slave narratives had referred to the victimization of enslaved African American women by white men, none had addressed the subject as directly as Jacobs finally chose to. She not only documented the sexual abuse she suffered, but also explained how she had devised a way to use her sexuality as a means of avoiding exploitation by her master. Risking her reputation in the disclosure of such intimate details, Jacobs appealed to a northern female readership that might sympathize with the plight of a southern mother in bondage. Indeed, throughout her narrative, Jacobs focuses on the importance of family and motherhood. She details the strain of being separated from her grandmother and two children during her seven years in hiding, and afterwards in New York and Boston, when she lacked the means to free her daughter. As her biographer Jean Fagan Yellin has noted, Jacobs's slave narrative is similar to other narratives in its story of struggle, survival, and ultimately freedom. Yet she also reworks the male-centered slave narrative genre to accommodate issues of motherhood and sexuality. By confronting directly the cruel realities that plagued black women in the nineteenth century, Jacobs's work occupies a significant place in American literary tradition.

Works Consulted: Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd ed., New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Ann Jacobs, The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Armistead Lemon

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