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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (09 Edition)by Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
EARLY ON in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, foreshadows her harrowing journey to come: "I wondered for what wise purpose God was leading me through such thorny paths, and whether still darker days were in store for me." In the story's title, these "thorny paths" and "darker days" are downplayed as mere "incidents," attempting to draw in the virtuous nineteenth-century female reader who might shy away from more graphic tales. But once the story begins, the reader finds herself on the edge of her seat. How will the "slave girl" overcome these "incidents" God has put in her way? Will the female protagonist always remain enslaved, as the title suggests? Or will she get the chance to rise above her physical, mental, and sociopolitical bondage and claim her rightful and true identity as a free woman? What is God's "wise purpose"? In this way, Jacobs's narrative becomes a parable, as the reader follows along to see both how the female protagonist faces her divine challenges and what she learns from His tests. Jacobs maintains this tension throughout her story, as illustrated in this passage from chapter 4: "The war of my life had begun; and though one of God's most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered."
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is undeniably the story of a woman trying to conquer a world that is denying her identity as a human being. Jacobs does not name herself in the title; she is "slave girl" — anonymous, objectified. Yet at the same time, the book is written both about and by her. This enables the narrator to speak loudly for all like her. Jacobs writes, "Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered." Jacobs symbolizes every girl, every female slave, and, for that matter, every woman who must rediscover herself deep inside the enslaved role to which she has been shackled since birth.
Despite Jacobs's note in the preface declaring the work was "no fiction," many readers dismissed Jacobs's narrative as sentimental, melodramatic falsehood. Other writers had already used melodramatic tactics to introduce the idea of an African American female slave as heroine; Harriet E. Wilson's autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), is one example. Jacobs's narrative seemed to fit into that same category. However, decades later, as scholars discovered revealing information in neglected archives both about Jacobs's life and her publication process, her story was verified as one of the first narratives to provide the detailed experience of a formerly enslaved black woman.
The Life and Work of Harriet Jacobs
In 1813, the year Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, another female author began the long, arduous journey toward publishing her own important and socially relevant narrative. Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, to Delilah Horniblow and Daniel Jacobs, two slaves owned by different masters, and was of mixed-race ancestry. Jacobs did not realize her slave status until she was six years old, when her mother died and the young girl was sent to live with her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow. The kind Mistress Horniblow taught Jacobs how to read and write, and Jacobs enjoyed the freedom of her childhood in the Horniblow household. She held onto hope that the good-hearted woman would set her free one day, but when Jacobs was nearly twelve, her mistress died. In Mistress Horniblow's will, Jacobs was bequeathed to the mistress's five-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. The first of many expectations and dreams were dashed for Jacobs; in fact, her enslavement at the Norcoms' began a lifetime of much mental and physical toil. Within two years, Dr. Norcom, Mary Matilda's father, started to emotionally and sexually harass Jacobs, a torment that pursued Jacobs throughout her life and motivated her to seek freedom for herself and her children. In 1828, her uncle Benjamin tried to escape to the North but did not succeed. The incident showed Jacobs the physical consequences of such an attempt; her uncle was imprisoned and maltreated for weeks. Jacobs's grandmother struggled to buy his freedom, but before she could, he ran away and finally made it to Baltimore.
When the sexual nature and mental toll of Dr. Norcom's advances became too much and Norcom's wife became suspicious of the goings-on, Jacobs was motivated to undertake drastic measures. Earlier, Norcom had refused Jacobs when she had asked his permission to marry a free black man. Now, she decided to have an affair with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried white lawyer, to thwart Norcom's obsession and to provoke him into selling both her and her children. Harriet became pregnant by Sawyer, gave birth to a son (Joseph), and moved in with her grandmother. Four years later, she had another child by Sawyer, daughter Louisa Matilda. Dr. Norcom id not sell her, as Jacobs had anticipated. Threatened and infuriated by Jacobs's relationship with Sawyer, Norcom reassigned Jacobs to hard labor in the fields of his plantation. Fearful that Norcom would make her children work there as well, Jacobs decided to run away. In 1835, she began a journey of hiding, initially staying with various friends and acquaintances. Finally, she found a sanctuary of sorts at her grandmother's house, in a small crawl space above the storeroom. The space, only "nine feet long and seven feet wide," was only three feet high at one end, and rats and mice lived alongside her. The space let in little light and air. But her plan worked: her children were purchased by Sawyer and came to live with her grandmother. For seven years, fearful of Dr. Norcom's discovery, Jacobs lived, unbeknownst to them, with her children "under the same roof."
In 1842, after years of contemplating different ways of scape, Harriet finally received the opportunity to leave her grandmother's crawl space. With the help of friends, she made her way to Philadelphia by ship under a friend's assumed identity, then to New York City. Over the next few years, she would reunite with her children, who then lived and worked in the North and would become involved with a community of antislavery feminists, including Amy Post, a Quaker abolitionist who fought for women's rights. Post, along with Harriet's employer, Cornelia Willis, supported her in her efforts to write her autobiography. Willis brought Harriet's freedom and helped her search for a publisher for Incidents. She had no luck selling the book at first, as the two publishing houses she dealt with went bankrupt. Finally, she decided to pay for publishing the book herself and purchased the typesetting plates to print the manuscript. In 1861, the book was released with a preface by Lydia Maria Child, abolitionist writer and editor.
As the Civil War raged, Jacobs moved to Washington, D.C., where she contributed to the effort to rebuild lives for fugitives and freedmen. In the postwar years, she and her daughter helped relief societies in North and South Carolina, including her hometown of Edenton. In 1868, she visited London to fund-raise for an orphanage, as well as a "home for the aged" in Savannah, Georgia. In 1897, just before her death, she participated in the fledgling National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in Washington, D.C.
Historical Background and Literary Context of
The Abolitionist Movement
The issue of slavery had threatened to divide the United States from the very beginning. In Northern states, where industrialization made cheap labor less of an economic necessity than it was in the South, the abolitionist movement rapidly gained momentum in the early 1800s. he economies of the Southern states, however, were based on farming, and landowners with extensive holdings required cheap labor to remain profitable. Also, after two hundred years of living with large slave populations, Southerners had come to see slavery as a part of their cultural heritage. Wealthy Southerners in particular were determined to preserve their way of life, and they fought hard to maintain the legality of slavery. Southerners were well aware that if opponents of slavery began to outnumber slavery supporters in Congress, the balance of power would shift and slavery would probably be outlawed. Each annexation of territory by the U.S. government brought new battles over whether slavery should be permitted.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the resolution of a particularly long congressional battle over slavery. The territory of Missouri, home to thousands of slaves, had petitioned for statehood in 1819, but Northern congressmen had objected to admitting another slave state to the Union. In 1820, Henry Clay, a representative from Kentucky, came up with a compromise. Maine had just applied for statehood. Clay suggested accepting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of power. But under the terms of the compromise, slavery would not be permitted anywhere north or west of Missouri within the Louisiana Purchase. Maine was admitted to the Union in 1820; Missouri, in 1821.
The United States continued to expand, however, and the Missouri Compromise did not quell sectional disputes for very long. The United States annexed Texas in 1845, leading to a war with Mexico. The United States quickly won, allowing it to take over most of the territory now considered the western part of the country. Once again, battles over power in Congress threatened to tear the nation apart. In an attempt to stave off civil war, Clay helped craft the Compromise of 1850. He struck a difficult, troubling bargain. In exchange for ensuring that the western United States would be free from slavery, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that slaves who escaped to a free state or free territory had to be returned to their owners. In 1853, emotionally distraught by the proclamation, Jacobs published "Letter from a Fugitive Slave" in the New York Tribune. In the letter, which she signed anonymously "A Fugitive Slave," Jacobs chided America and its view of freedom, ultimately dismissing what America, "this free country where all nations fly for liberty, equal rights and protection under [the] stripes and stars," stood for. Jacobs ended her letter wryly stating that the flag should have been known as "stripes and scars" because they symbolized the injustices of slavery, or "all the evils in God's sight to most to be abhorred."
The Compromise of 1850 pleased very few people, but the peace was preserved for a few more years. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and returned to the states the power to make or keep slavery legal. Abolitionists were outraged. Bloody battles over the issue broke out in Kansas Territory. In 1861, the same year Harriet Jacobs published her book, most of the Southern states seceded from the Union. Civil war finally erupted.
Harriet Jacobs, like many fugitive slaves, found her way north to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad, an unofficially organized system developed to aid slaves in their escape from the South, was the epitome of community collaboration. This nexus transported hundreds of slaves annually. While this intricate system originated during George Washington's presidential tenure, steam railroads were inspiring the country by 1831, and the name The Underground Railroad, as well as an attendant vocabulary, was formulated around railroading. For example, places where fugitives stopped to rest and refuel were called "stations" or "depots." A "conductor" took care to transport fugitives from one "station" to the next, which could be anywhere from ten to twenty miles away or farther.
Vigilance Committees in the larger northern cities, including New York and Boston, where Jacobs lived, raised money for the Railroad, in addition to providing food, money, and employment for the fugitives. Famous supporters of the Railroad's efforts included American poet/philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Quaker minister/social reformer Lucretia Mott, and civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were also closely associated with the Railroad. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass later became a leader of the Underground Railroad movement in Rochester, New York, and helped hundreds of slaves to freedom by opening his own home as a "station." Yet Douglass revered Harriet Tubman's actions with the Railroad cause over his own: "Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hard ships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]." As a "conductor" nicknamed Moses by her people for her efforts, Tubman used such clever strategies to lead so many slaves to freedom that a forty-thousand-dollar bounty, an enormous sum at the time, was placed on her head.
Slave Narratives and Autobiography
Jacobs's Incidents was one of many slave narratives published in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Read by ome as important testimony to a moral wrong and by others as thrilling stories of suffering and triumph, the slave narrative was one of the bestselling genres in America and Europe. It was identifiable as a genre not simply through its content but also through the fairly strict form imposed on the unique experiences of individual authors. Generally, a slave narrative was supposed to give over the bulk of its story to the sufferings of its author in slavery, and it was supposed to end with its author's escape to freedom. In a few cases, when the tale of escape was particularly spectacular or arduous, the structure changed to accommodate the tale. The narratives were also supposed to be "true stories," but their veracity was often questioned, and not just by pro-slavery readers. It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, and the horrors detailed by the narratives were often simply too much for white readers to believe. Their popularity also meant writers and publishers with an eye for profit sometimes produced false narratives, often cobbled together from true stories. To promote the reader's credulity, authentic narratives were often presented in a "white envelope" — with forewords and afterwords written by white authors who vouched for the talent and honesty of the narrative's author.
copyright © 2009 by Simon and Schuster, Inc.
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