have told them a different story. We could have given them a chapter
of wrongs and sufferings…
-Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Oppression always requires the
participation of the oppressed.
-Diane Nash, Civil Rights Activists
and Movement Strategist
“I was born a slave,” so
begins the slave narrative, Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861),
ending with Harriet Jacob, a free woman. She would rather not speak
of those “painful years.” However “gloomy”
her recollection of those years, she could remember the “tender
memories” of her grandmother, and muster the courage to tell a
story needs telling. After all, it’s not her narrative alone,
but also the narrative of women, enslaved women, in American history.
Hers is the narrative of domestic violence, beginning with the threat
of rape and rape against African American girls and women.
Harriet Jacobs is a fugitive slave
when she, using the pseudonym, Linda Brent, decides to speak out
against the enterprise of enslavement that, as she writes, is so
dependent upon the use of violence to sustain itself and the
political and economic power of the enslavers. Jacobs has once before
taken matters into her hands in a struggle to defy a Goliath of a
patriarchal system that not only threatens to strip her of her
humanity but also to sell her two children “down river.”
And it’s this decision and its consequences that consists of
the “incidents” which, unfortunately, relate Jacobs, are
not necessarily unique to her.
When Jacobs is six years old, her
mother dies. It was, she writes, at that time she learns, “by
the talk around her,” that she is a slave. Born in North
Carolina, in the year 1813, she had been accustomed to playing freely
about the plantation with “no thought for the morrow.”
But when her mistress dies six years after her mother, she truly
understood what it meant to be “a human being born to be a
chattel.” Her mistress’ will is read: she, Harriet
Jacobs, twelve years old, is to be “bequeathed” to the
five-year-old daughter of the deceased mistress’s sister.
Jacobs laments how she is not asked
what her plans for her future are. Others make decisions about the
lives of others and that’s it! The slaveholding class exercises
power over a woman’s body in order to breed new labor for
future profits. Her future lies in the submission of her will to the
whims of others.
She recalls “hiring-day,”
the first of January, a dreaded day for most enslaved African
Americans, for it’s the day slaveholders buy and sell, trade,
and exchange human beings, including children. By the 2nd day, those
sold are expected to leave with their new masters. It’s
particularly wrenching for the enslaved mother. Mothers might stay
on, but children are sold off. This is a day of particular sorrow for
mothers, Jacobs writes. On the 1st of the year, “she sits on
her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from
her the next morning; and often does wish that she and they might die
before the day dawns.”
Jacobs adds that however others
might look on these women, maybe as “ignorant” creatures,
made so by a “system that has brutalized her from childhood,”
these women are, nonetheless, “capable of feeling a mother’s
But here we are: “Dr. Flint, a
physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my mistress,
and I was the property of their little daughter.”
What Dr. Flint knows is business,
the running of a plantation. And, above all, profits. In his
household, he knows who is under his authority, who is subject to his
power, who is property to be used for his pleasure and financial
gain. “When he told me that I was made for his use, made to
obey his command in every
thing; that I was nothing
but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never
before had my puny arm felt half so strong.”
Harriet Jacobs is fifteen years old.
Dr. Flint is whispering “foul words” in my ears. “I
tried to treat them with indifference or contempt.”
Everything, she writes, that her
grandmother had instilled in her was tested by this “vile
monster” who attempted to “people” her young mind
“with unclean images.” There was no protection from the
“insult,” “violence,” or “death.”
It was, writes Jacobs, relentless! But refusing to despair envisions
her freedom beyond the “clutches” of this master. So the
war is on, she writes. One of “God’s most powerless
creatures,” she resolves “never to be conquered.”
If the reader wants an idea of the
ruling class Southern American home during these years of
enslavement, here is one, the one in which she lived as a teen under
the authority of adults. Here, I offer “no imaginary pictures
of southern homes.” Instead, Jacobs writes of the bind/blinders
placed on the wife of Dr. Flint, “a second wife, many years the
junior of her husband; the hoary-headed miscreant was enough to try
the patience of a wiser and better woman.”
It didn’t help to seek
protection from a woman, herself subjected to violence even as she
inflicted, in turn, violence on those more vulnerable than herself.
Wasn’t this young woman aware of her husband’s pursuit of
the teen, Harriet Jacobs? Hadn’t the young wife once been the
daughter to a slave-owning father and hadn’t she been aware of
what took place in the cabins, between her father and the young Black
girls? After all, many are, writes Jacobs, “attended by the
young slave girls whom their father has corrupted.” How
often was the white daughter’s first child conceived by an
enslaved Black man,
deliberately to punish /hurt their fathers?
The slaveholding class talked of “blighted cotton crops”
and not of “the blight on these children’s souls.”
It’s not long before “the
young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed
her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows.”
The American household! The happy
Harriet Jacobs begins to focus her
attention on Mr. Sands, “a man of more generosity and feeling
than” her master. She could decide on Mr. Sands rather than
resign herself to Dr. Flint! “I thought my freedom could be
easily obtained from him,” Mr. Sands, and never from Dr. Flint.
Jacobs asks that the pure of spirit reader not judge her decision.
Reduced to the “conditions of a chattel,” what would you
To escape Dr. Flint, she’s
forced to sleep with Mr. Sands.
Harriet Jacobs has two children,
Benjamin and Ellen, by Mr. Sands. As she recalls, Dr. Flint has
relinquished his pursuit of her. Ever relentless, one day he
approaches Jacobs while she has her son in her lap. Flint, in a rage,
frightens the boy, who, in turn, embraces his mothers as if to
protect her. The child is grabbed and thrown across the room. When
Jacobs tried to run toward her child, Flint stops her: “Let him
lie there till he comes to.”
When Dr. Flint approaches her again,
he reminds her that her freedom and that of her children must be his
decision. He has a proposal - if she agrees to it, her freedom could
be granted. But she must
end all communication between herself and the father of the children.
You can have a home and your freedom. But no Mr. Sands.
Harriet Jacobs refuses the offer -
or bribe, a thinly veiled threat to pursue his abusive ways when it
comes to her, her children, and their collective future.
Dr. Flint declares that she is too
impulsive. Take your time.
You have until next week.
And when Jacobs asks to return to
the plantation, he’s once again angry.
But the boy will be sold and the daughter “raised for the
purpose of selling as well.”
And finally, Harriet Jacobs’
worst nightmares become visible to her. Is this not domestic
terrorism, too? “My suspicions were correct. My children were
to be brought to the plantation to be ‘broke in.’”
Is all of this selling and buying,
cruelty and indifference not domestic terrorism?
Jacobs had to plan. And quick!
Jacobs decides to take flight. She
works her last day on the plantation. And then, she took flight: “I
went forth into the darkness and rain. I ran on till I came to the
house of the friend who was to conceal me.”
In the meantime, Dr. Flint begins
the search for his property.
“$300 Reward! Ran away from
the subscriber, an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, named Linda, 21
years of age…”
“$150 will be given to whoever
takes her in the state, and $300 if taken out of the state and
delivered to me, or lodged in jail. Dr. Flint”
Harriet Jacobs resolves not to turn
back: “‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my
motto.” However, her contacts informed her that a place of
concealment has been established at her grandmother’s house.
She couldn’t imagine any place in which to hide where Flint
wouldn’t seize her. But she was told to “wait and see.”
Once Jacobs was rowed ashore, she
“went boldly through the streets,” to her grandmother’s,
dressed in a sailor’s uniform, her face blackened with
Reaching her grandmother’s
house, she entered the shed where “some boards had been laid
across the joists at the top,” she writes, and between these
boards and the roof was a very small garret, “only occupied by
rats and mice.”
This was to be home…
“This hole I was conveyed as
soon as I entered the house.”
This was to be home for seven years…
Jacobs described the air as
“stifling” while the bed sloped on one side. “She
could not turn on the other [side] without hitting the roof.”
And light. Barely. Yet, she was free from being a slave. There in
that hole of a home, she could hear the voices of her children placed
nearby during the day so she could hear them. Soon, she “bore
three rows of holes” until it was one hole where she could
actually see Benny and Ellen.
How she longed to tell them she was
there and had not left them behind.
“I hardly expected that the
reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little
dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to
move my limbs, for nearly seven years.” This seems an
incredible story, a crazy story. In America, a woman had to conceal
herself in such a manner as to not experience sexual assault and
domestic terror, that is, witnessing the forced removal of her
But isn’t this America?
Mr. Sands didn’t keep his
promise to free the children. But eventually, the children were
rushed off North to safety. Jacobs, herself, was subject to the
Fugitive Slave Act; however, she finally obtains her freedom and the
freedom of her children. In the meantime, while Jacobs was in the
North, her grandmother, rejoiced in the realization that her
grandchild and great-grandchildren were free, before she, herself,
March 7, 1897, Harriet Jacobs dies,
but her abolitionist work lives on.
Dr. Flint pursues Jacobs and her
children and their descendants. He never dies…
Back in the Fall of 2006, after
teaching an African American women’s literature course at the
UW Madison, I was discussing with another colleague, a retired white
woman, the interest I noticed from students regarding the study of
slavery in contrast to the administration’s objection to the
teaching of slavery. Or at least, teaching slavery with the emphasis
on telling that different
story, the only way I
know how, as a descendant of enslaved Blacks.
I remember we were both activists in
the Madison area. We spoke often by phone for months, until one day…
I thought I was talking with someone who recognized how important it
was to teach slavery in the US if students are to understand a
narrative like Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl. The
systemic dehumanization of a significant portion of humanity can’t
be covered over by narratives and monuments promoting the lie of
I heard the anger reach my ear.
Slavery! Slavery! No wonder they
don’t want you there!
By the “they” she meant,
the UW Madison. They don’t want you. They don’t want your
interpretation of the slavery story. Give us, instead, as Harriet
Jacobs noted, a story touching on the “beautiful feature in the
Otherwise, no one is talking about
Fifteen years later, just last week,
in fact, I’m on the phone with a librarian for the Kenosha
Public Library. I’m asking if she could locate any oldish news
articles on Linda Brent’s Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl. I
mention Harriet Jacobs, I’m sure. In passing. This is a
I don’t hear from her for a
few days and I call. She informs me that she was unable to come up
with anything. Nothing on Linda Brent. I mention Harriet Jacobs - I
was finding it difficult to come up with anything, too, on Jacobs.
I thought you said Linda Brent?
Linda Brent is the pseudonym
Harriet Jacobs used.
Harriet Jacobs’ story, as a
slave narrative, is among the first works of American culture. Among
the first memoirs, if you will. Harriet Jacobs is known where only
the uninformed few would call her Linda Brent. But why inform those
who have been privileged, as this librarian and that retired faculty
from UW Madison, and who are quite comfortable in the innocence
Living in the US, both of these
women are privileged to become authoritarians within the system that
disseminates information, knowledge, and do not have a clue as to
their role as oppressors, continuing the work of maintaining white
Living in a country without any idea
about its history of violence, indeed, its foundation of violence is
what is incredible. Crazy.
It’s really sad when all you
know and contribute to maintains patriarchal tenets of white
All the more reason Harriet Jacobs’
narrative is a must-read for a new generation of Americans unafraid
to learn. To know!