Harriet Jacobs: One of the mothers of Black feminist writing. She was born a slave and escaped to become an abolitionist writer and speaker. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was the first recognized autobiographical work accounting the unique struggle of Black women in and outside of slavery in the American South. Her reflections on motherhood, woman-ness, sexism, and sexuality blazed trails for many that came after her.
Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. Harriet’s mother, Delilah, was the slave of John Horniblow, a tavern-keeper, and her father, Daniel Jacobs, a white slave owned by Dr. Andrew Knox. She later recorded: “ I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skillful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. In complexion, my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes. They lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safekeeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment.” Delilah died when Harriet was six years old and was brought up by her grandmother.
In 1825 Harriet was sold to Dr. James Norcom. She became a house slave: “Mrs. Norcom, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not to strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church, but partaking of the Lord’s supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind. If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them.”
In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet described a slave market she observed in North Carolina. “On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives today in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me? I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.”
Harriet’s brother Benjamin attempted to escape. However, like most runaways he was captured: “That day seems but as yesterday, so well do I remember it. I saw him led through the streets in chains, to jail. His face was ghastly pale, yet full of determination. He had begged one of the sailors to go to his mother’s house and ask her not to meet him. He said the sight of her distress would take from him all self-control. She yearned to see him, and she went; but she screened herself in the crowd, that it might be as her child had said.”
When she reached the age of fifteen Dr. James Norcom attempted to have sex with her: “My master, Dr. Norcom, began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling.”
Several of the young slaves gave in to his demands. According to Harriet: “My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves.” This upset Mrs. Norcom: “The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child’s own mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse.”
Dr. James Norcom continued to make sexual advances towards her. When rebuffed, Norcom refused her permission to marry. Jacobs was seduced by Samuel Sawyer, a lawyer, and she had two children by him. Dr. Norcom continued to sexually harass Harriet and threatened to sell her children to a slave dealer.
In 1834 Harriet became a runaway. Norcom published an advert in the local newspaper: “Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, 21 years age. Five feet four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made straight. Has a decayed spot on a front tooth. She can read and write, and in all probability will try to get to the Free States. All persons are forbidden, under penalty of the law, to harbor or employ said slave. $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.”
Harriet managed to reach Philadelphia. “I made my way back to the wharf, where the captain introduced me to the colored man, as the Rev. Jeremiah Durham, minister of Bethel church. He took me by the hand, as if I had been an old friend. He told us we were too late for the morning cars to New York, and must wait until the evening, or the next morning. He invited me to go home with him, assuring me that his wife would give me a cordial welcome; and for my friend, he would provide a home with one of his neighbors. I thanked him for so much kindness to strangers, and told him if I must be detained, I should like to hunt up some people who formerly went from our part of the country. Mr. Durham insisted that I should dine with him, and then he would assist me in finding my friends. The sailors came to bid us good-by. I shook their hardy hands, with tears in my eyes. They had all been kind to us, and they had rendered us a greater service than they could possibly conceive of.”
Harriet later moved on to New York City where she worked as a nurse-maid. She began writing her autobiography and some of it was published by Horace Greeley his newspaper, New York Tribune. Her account of how she had been sexually abused shocked the American public and when her autobiography was completed, she found it difficult to get it published.
They were particularly concerned by Harriet’s descriptions of the behavior of Norcom (name changed to Flint in the book). Child defended the inclusion of the material by arguing: “This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled, but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them.”
Other people were upset by the way Jacobs highlighted the role of the Church in maintaining slavery. Eventually, the manuscript was accepted by the publishers, Thayer and Eldridge, who recruited Lydia Maria Child to edit the book. Unfortunately, Thayer and Eldridge went bankrupt and it was not until 1861 that it was published in Boston as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
During the American Civil War Jacobs worked as a nurse in Virginia. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 Jacobs wrote to Lydia Maria Child that: “I have lived to hear the Proclamation of Freedom for my suffering people. All my wrongs are forgiven. I am more than repaid for all I have endured.”
Harriet Jacobs, who lived the latter part of her life in Washington, died on 7th March, 1897, and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Links to Harriet A. Jacobs Books