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Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains the most-read woman's slave narrative of all time. Jean Fagan Yellin recounts the experiences that shaped Incidents-the years Jacobs spent hiding in her grandmother's attic from her sexually abusive master-as well as illuminating the wider world into which Jacobs escaped. Yellin's groundbreaking scholarship restores a life whose sorrows and triumphs reflect the history of the nineteenth century, from slavery to the Civil War, to Reconstruction and ...
Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains the most-read woman's slave narrative of all time. Jean Fagan Yellin recounts the experiences that shaped Incidents-the years Jacobs spent hiding in her grandmother's attic from her sexually abusive master-as well as illuminating the wider world into which Jacobs escaped. Yellin's groundbreaking scholarship restores a life whose sorrows and triumphs reflect the history of the nineteenth century, from slavery to the Civil War, to Reconstruction and beyond. Winner of the 2004 Frederick Douglass Prize, presented by Yale University’s Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, awarded to the year’s best non-fiction book on slavery, resistance and abolition, the most prestigious award for the study of the black experience.
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I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise. -Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 5
She did not know. Papa's pride, Mama's darling, Grandmother's joy-she did not know she was a slave. Not until she was six, and Mama died. And really not even then. But later, when she was willed to Little Miss, she had to find out. Hatty was a slave.
Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina, in 1813, twenty-four years after the adoption of the Constitution had firmly established slavery in the newly formed United States. It would be seven years before slavery's spread into new states would be limited by the Missouri Compromise, and a half century before Emancipation. At her birth, there was no reason to think that baby Hatty would live out her life as anything but a slave-yet she not only freed herself and her children, she became an activist and an author, a runaway whose narrative of her life was championed by the abolitionists and feminists and was a weapon in the struggle for emancipation. During the Civil War she went back south, working as a relief worker and an advocate on behalf of the black refugees behind the Union lines in Alexandria and later in Savannah, telling their story in the northern press. When racist violence engulfed the South, she retreated to Massachusetts and then to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1897. Harriet Jacobs was an heroic woman who lived in an heroic time. Committing herself to freedom, she made her life representative of the struggle for liberation.
Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton because her grandmother Molly had been bought and brought there before the Revolution by a local tavern owner. Originally peopled by the Chowan tribe and settled early, Edenton was an important port from 1771 to 1776, when North Carolina was a British colony. Trade boomed: 828 ships cleared the port, a quarter of them bound for New England and nearly half for the West Indies. They carried exports from the pine forests-barrel staves, shingles, tar, and deerskins; from the farms-corn, cane, tobacco, cattle, and hogs; and from the water-fish. The largest imports were rum, molasses, salt, and linen. After the Revolution, however, prosperity ended. In 1783 a traveler, eyeing the derelict ships in the harbor, doubted that Edenton would ever reclaim its trade. "It appears that most vessels entering the Sound pass by the town." He was decidedly unimpressed by Edenton's inhabitants-"The white men are all the time complaining that the blacks will not work, and they themselves do nothing.... We lived at a regular tavern where ... half a dozen negroes were running about the house all day, and nothing was attended to, unless one saw to it himself." It was to just such an inn, Horniblow's Tavern, that the child Molly, Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, was taken as a slave.
Molly was one of three children of a slave woman and her South Carolina master. At his death during the Revolution, Molly's father had freed his black family and sent them under British protection to St. Augustine. On the journey, they were captured by Americans, separated, and sold. Edenton's John Horniblow bought Molly while he was traveling, probably in 1780, and took her back to his tavern. There she grew to adulthood, becoming, over the years, "an indispensable personage in the household, officiating in all capacities"[ILSG p. 6]. The tavern's central location next to the courthouse, and its role as a public house in a seaport, guaranteed that the observant slave girl knew whatever was going on.
When Molly could slip away-from dusting, sweeping, and making up the beds, from bringing in the water and wood, from peeling and chopping, clearing away, washing up, scrubbing, and scouring-she could run down to the harbor where piles of farm products were shipped out and manufactured goods were shipped in. On a bright June day in 1785, these were not the only cargoes. The port was astir with news that the brig Camden had arrived with a cargo of Africans in its hold, fresh from the Guinea coast after a seven-month voyage. A visiting London merchant commented, "a hundred slaves aboard in the state of nature (women and men). They talk a most curious lingo, are extremely black, with elegant white teeth.... They are all from twenty to twenty-five years of age." The slave girl Molly, like everyone in town, knew that they had been bought to dig a seven-mile canal and drain a lake across the Sound from Edenton, and that it was to be finished by Christmas, if the rain would stop.
Four years later, Edenton celebrated the adoption of the federal Constitution: at dawn, the Union flag was flown from a staff in the center of town, and the ships in the harbor hoisted their colors; at noon a salute was fired by a dozen "24 pounders"; and at sundown, the courthouse cupola was lighted by twelve lanterns suspended from the flagstaff. (Because Rhode Island had not adopted the Constitution, the thirteenth lantern was kept dark.) According to the census, in 1790 Edenton consisted of about 150 houses, and its population numbered about 1,000 black slaves-half owned by five large slaveholders-and 600 whites, a third of whom owned no slaves. (Most of the slaves were numbered as residents because their owners lived in town, although they themselves lived and worked on the farms nearby.) The unequal distribution of wealth among the whites occasioned complaints, and the local paper deplored both the presence of young men "lolling in tavern piazzas and ... gaping and sauntering about the public rooms," and criticized the "fine fat hogs in our streets." With the adoption of the federal Constitution, shipping revived. But in 1795, a hurricane closed Roanoke Inlet, destroying the most direct passage from Albemarle Sound to the Atlantic. Then as the century closed, work began on the Dismal Swamp Canal from Redding (now Elizabeth City) through the Great Dismal Swamp, connecting the Albemarle Sound to the Virginia markets at Norfolk and Portsmouth. Opened to flatboats in 1805, this canal-"to North Carolina a blood-sucker at her very vitals"-impoverished Edenton as it enriched her Virginia rivals, and it guaranteed that a sea-lane would never be cut through the Outer Banks.
Like every slave, Molly was conscious of the violence of the slavery system, and the 1771 revolution in Santo Dominigo, today called Haiti, must have underscored that awareness. At the nearby island-with a population of 30,000 whites, 40,000 mulattoes and free blacks, and 400,000 slaves-the slaves rose, demanding the rights proclaimed in the French Revolution. The consequence was bloody. Although the revolt was put down, in 1793 Haiti became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish chattel slavery. Whites fled, and Edenton, like other southern ports, experienced an influx of French-speaking refugees.
The refugee Haitians had reason to be terrified of rebellious slaves, and their fear was contagious. In the wake of the events on the island, Edenton, like other southern settlements, became increasingly aware of the potential threat posed by its slave population. In 1808, in an effort to end nighttime thefts by fugitive slaves hiding in the woods and the swamps (called "pocosin"), the town imposed a curfew and mounted a patrol to enforce it. The Edenton Gazette reported in March 1811 that "a party of men, in scouring ... Cabarrus's Pocosin, came across a Negro Camp, which contained 5 runaway Negroes, 2 wenches and 3 fellows, who were armed." After capturing both women and shooting and killing two of the men-the third escaped-they found "a vast deal of plunder ... together with a great number of keys" to houses and outbuildings. Their concern, the paper continues, was not only theft. "These fellows, we are credibly informed, had bid defiance to any force whatever, and were resolved to stand their ground: which resolution was exemplified by the resistance they were about to make. Each fellow stood with his musket pointed, watching a favorable opportunity." The report further charges that the fugitives' camps, called "maroons," were encouraged by "some of the dram-shop gentry on the wharf, that are suffered to vend their articles at an unseasonable hour of the night, and on the Sabbath."
In June 1812, when America declared war on Great Britain, Edenton's trade-like that of all American ports-collapsed. A year later, local militia units were mustered to prevent a British squadron from landing troops, but the enemy ships, unable to cross the shallow bar, never reached the town. The war intensified the fears of white Edenton concerning the danger their slaves represented. That summer, a worried resident urged that everyone "who has not arms in his house; immediately procure them." He feared, he explained, that in defending themselves against the foreign enemy they might ignore "that which may spring up in our bosom!"
Property lists reveal that by this time Molly had become the mother of five children. (They say nothing of the children's fathers.) After her master's death, she was owned by his widow, Elizabeth Horniblow. Over the years, as Elizabeth's daughters married, she would give each bride one of Molly's daughters as a wedding gift: Molly's Betty would go to Mary Matilda, and Becky to Eliza. To Margaret, an invalid who would never marry, Elizabeth had already given Molly's Delilah.
Delilah, according to her daughter Harriet, was "a slave merely in name, but in nature ... noble and womanly." Hatty was only six when her mother died. When in adulthood she wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, her autobiography, she offered her readers no memories of her mother's height or weight, posture, gesture, or expression, but she did specify her color. Both her parents were "a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes" [ILSG, p. 5]. Jacobs also writes that she often recalls her mother's last blessing. Unlike her brother John who, two years younger, kept merely "a slight recollection" of Delilah, Jacobs reports that "in many an hour of tribulation I ... seemed to hear her voice, sometimes chiding me, sometimes whispering loving words into my wounded heart." It is her mother's voice-not her face-that lived in Jacobs's memory.
Of her father she wrote more. When, where, and how Delilah met and married Elijah, we do not know. But Jacobs mentions a ring and reports that-although for slaves, marriage had no legal force-their wedding was not without ceremony. Because Elijah lived on for six years after Delilah's death, Hatty and her brother had more time to know him, and both evoke a fuller sense of the man. Elijah was born on the Knox plantation in nearby Pasquotank County, probably to Athena, a slave of Dr. Andrew Knox. His father was apparently Henry Jacobs, an illiterate white farmer who owned no slaves and who lived with his wife and children across the county line in Perquimans, within a mile of the Knox plantation. Elijah grew up on the Knox place and, although illiterate, became a skilled carpenter. Trusted by his owners, he worked on houses in the country and in town, where he met and married Molly Horniblow's daughter Delilah. Even after Dr. Knox moved away in 1812, Elijah was permitted to remain in Edenton with his wife and children. Her father, Jacobs writes, was so "skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for" [ILSG p. 5]. "By his nature," she recalls, "as well as by the habit of transacting business as a skilful mechanic, [he] had more of the feelings of a freeman than is common among slaves" [ILSG p. 9]. From their father, little John and Hatty learned to value themselves and to prize both education and liberty. His daughter writes that his "strongest wish was to purchase his children" [ILSG p. 5]. His son spells out his tortured life as the father of slaves. "To be a man, and not to be a man-a father without authority-a husband and no protector-is the darkest of fates. My father," he testifies, "taught me to hate slavery, but forgot to teach me how to conceal my hatred. I could frequently perceive the pent-up agony of his soul, although he tried hard to conceal it in his own breast. The knowledge that he was a slave himself, and that his children were also slaves, embittered his life, but made him love us the more" [TT in ILSG p. 208].
Hatty was proud of her father's carpentry skills, and as she grew old enough to explore the neighborhood, she perhaps recognized Elijah's expert workmanship in the federal portico at elegant Beverly Hall, or in the unusual drilled spiral molding on James Iredell's double porch. She was familiar with the barrel-vaulted ceiling and square bell tower and spire of St. Paul's, where she had been baptized, and with the impressive Georgian county courthouse, with its brick walls and handsome cupola at the end of the green. Yet Harriet Jacobs never describes the town's architectural beauty. What she does write is that her family "lived together in a comfortable home" [ILSG p. 5].
This home became a model she would spend her life trying to replicate for her own children. Jacobs probably spent her first "six years of happy childhood" with her father, mother, and little brother in one of the outbuildings behind Horniblow's Tavern on King Street, with kin all around her-her grandmother Molly, who through her decades at the tavern worked "in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress," her uncle Mark Ramsey, her aunts Betty and Becky, and her uncle Joseph, only a few years older than she [ILSG pp. 5-6].
Nurtured by this extended family, little Hatty blossomed. Her eyes dazzled by the sunshine illuminating Albemarle Sound, her ears delighted by the arrival of the stagecoach driver, who came "tearing down ... [Broad] Street, his horses in full canter, blowing his long tin horn, heralding his approach as he drew up in front of Horniblow's Tavern," Molly's cherished granddaughter led a charmed life. She knew no threatening master. Actually, neither her mother nor her grandmother had a master, but instead answered to a mistress. And because her mother was not, like Grandmother Molly, wet nurse to her mistress's baby, Hatty was not displaced at the breast, as her mother Delilah had been. Harriet Jacobs's later life testifies that her family successfully protected the bright-eyed little girl, whom they "fondly shielded" in these earliest years [ILSG pp. 5].
The most joyous season for all Edenton children, black and white, was Christmas, when the Jon Kuners appeared.
Excerpted from Harriet Jacobs by Jean Fagan Yellin Copyright © 2004 by Jean Fagan Yellin. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 3, 2005
I had to read this book for a History Review Paper. I found this book very interesting and it took me almost no time at all to read it. As you read this book, (as a woman)I felt Harriet's need to be free. The constant fear of loosing her children, who could be sold with out notice or her having no legal right to them. To live every day with the knowledge that you had no say in how you or your family lived your life and that you where at the mercy of your master would make you want to gain your freedom. To know that once you went for it, you had to keep going until you reached it or you where caught or killed. Which in most cases the slave was caught and killed or they wished that they where dead from the punishment that their master inflected on them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 19, 2004
As a history and a lit student, this book was amazing to read. I only wish I had found it during the school year rather than during the summer! Yellin tells an incredible story of not just Harriet Jacobs, but also of her daughter Louisa. After both managed to find their freedom together, they continued to work for Black and Womens' Rights until nearly their deaths. These are two women well worth being remembered.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 16, 2004
Jean Yellin¿s Harriet Jacobs: A Life is readable, interesting, and meaningful. It is dedicated, Yellin says, to Jacobs, whose soul burned for freedom and whose heart was steeled to suffer even death in the pursuit of liberty and equality for African Americans and women. When she died in 1907, Jacobs was nearly forgotten, but Yellin¿s biography restores an important woman to public scrutiny and well-deserved approbation. Until 1985, when Yellin¿s edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl established Jacobs as its author, the book was considered fiction that could not have possibly been written by a freed slave. If there was any doubt that Jacobs was the author of Incidents, Yellin¿s fine detailing of Jacobs¿ life conclusively settles the issue. We are immersed in Jacobs¿s drama, provided with a compelling narrative of her life and given glimpses into her family, her children, and social life of the South and North before and after the Civil War. What Yellin does so well is to lucidly document the dignity and intrepid character that raises Jacobs above the wretchedness of slavery and racial prejudice wherever it surfaces.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.