Harriet Jacobs: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861)

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope around a man’s body, and suspend him form the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eight commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provide the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicious. . . . If a slave stole from him even a pound of meat or a peck of corn, if detection followed, he was put in chains and imprisoned, and so kept till his form was attenuated by hunger and sickness. (791–792)

jacobs

The genre of the American slave narrative reached its apogee with Harriet Jacob’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, published when the Civil War had just begun but was still—for President Abraham Lincoln and most of the North—about the preservation of the Union. The Confederate leaders, in contrast, knew very well that the war was about slavery, the central institution of the South. Perhaps no document shows how integral slavery was to the psychological and intimate foundation of the South than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The narrative was put out by Lydia Maria Child, but it was actually Jacobs’ insistence that made the book possible. She has been writing it for almost a decade, around the time that friends of her purchased her freedom (apparently without Jacobs’ consent). She was a fugitive slave since 1835, spending seven years hiding in a crawlspace not far from her owners before she was able to escape. Some more facts of her life are revealing. Jacobs was born and lived in bondage in North Carolina. She was sent to the household of James Norcom when she was twelve years old after her owner died. She had two children (one when she was 16 the other when she was 20) with a local white lawyer. During her teenage years she was sexually harassed and intimidated by James Norcom while at the same time fending off intense feelings of hostility and resentment from James’ wife. She was around 22 when she went into hiding. Her immediate goal was to get Norcom to sell her children to their biological father. This worked. For much of her early life she lived with her brother, who also escaped from slavery. After arriving in New York she worked next to (I do not know if she worked with) Frederick Douglass, sharing the same building with him. She ran an anti-slavery bookstore and he ran the newspaper the North Star, in Rochester. Most of her income came from sewing at this time. Jacobs’ did some important work during Reconstruction around Washington D.C. She died at the turn of the twentieth century. As far as I know Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was her only published work, and this was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

 

The entire narrative is written with changed names, the most interesting of which was the use of “Dr. Flint” for Dr. James Norcom, suggesting her perspective on his character.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is rich in details about the lives of slaves in the South. Her descriptions of violence, religious life, celebrations (such as a charming look at the slave’s Christmas), the political influence of slave holders at the local level, the surveillance systems build up by slave holders after Nat Turner’s revolt, and most importantly the gender politics at the root of slavery are all expressed with the necessary moral clarity. While I do think that Jacobs is most important for her complex look at the experience of enslaved women and the domestic and sexual politics that the system seemed to make inevitable, readers should not miss some of the other themes she carefully documents. The response to Nat Turner’s revolt by the planation South is required reading for anti-authoritarians because it shows a surveillance state being created almost overnight.

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Jacobs’ narrative is also the most clear in this set about the experience of enslaved children. The vast majority of her time as a slave was during her childhood. Of course, like all slaves, she grew up fast, but she was still amazingly young when she escaped. So she had some very sharp memories of childhood in slavery. In this she may be like the Great Depression-era slave narratives collected by Works Progress Administration writers. Most of those oral histories are from people who were still quite young when slavery in the United States ended. I rather enjoyed this passage:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life has been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning. How have those years dealt with slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (775–776)

While slave narratives are full of these contradictions, this passage reminds us that the color line had to be learned and taught. (Readers will know that this blog is a big fan of children for their libertarian spirits, belief in justice and solidarity, and their Promethean spirit.)

In lieu of a full analysis, I will point out that chapters 12 and 13 are the most relevant for an analysis of power in the South, dealing first with the changes to the militia and the security systems on plantations after news of Nat Turner’s revolt horrified the Southern ruling class. These chapters also describe the use of Christianity as a defense against slave insurrection. In both cases, however, Jacobs documents the possibility of resistance, either through taking advantage of expectations or—as in the case of the church—forming competing vernacular religious traditions.

As for the sexual politics of slavery, no one (as far as I know) is clearer than Jacobs. I suppose any patriarchal slave society (Are there any other kind?) would face these tensions. The nature of the color line made sexual transgressions by masters more conspicuous I suppose. Wives of planters had to live with their husband’s illegitimate children nearby and clearly noticeable. Jacobs was stuck between Norcom’s violent harassment and constant threats and her mistress’s jealousy. In turn Jacobs was able to use her sexuality to resistant and ensure freer future for her children. Her relationship with a well-off white man was likely well-thought out (perhaps not unlike Sally Hemmings).

Jacobs tries to get her readers to emphasize with long-suffering white wives. Much of the power of her propaganda comes from her skill at shattering the myth of the family.

I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. (781)

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