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Harriet Jacobs

We could 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 agonies.”

But here we are: “Dr. Flint, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my mistress, and I was not 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 American household!

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 do?

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.”

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.

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.

Go! 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.”

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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 charcoal.

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 children.

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, died.

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 American innocence.

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 ‘patriarchal institution.’”

Otherwise, no one is talking about slavery!

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 librarian.

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 bubble?

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 supremacy.

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 supremacy.

All the more reason Harriet Jacobs’ narrative is a must-read for a new generation of Americans unafraid to learn. To know!

Lenore Jean Daniels
The Black Commentator