Monday, June 8, 2015

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Title: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Author: Harriet Jacobs
Published: 1861
Challenge: The Well-Educated Mind Reading Challenge (Biographies)

This was the most remarkable story I have ever read regarding slavery in America. With the exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I have only read accounts of slavery from a man's perspective; but Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is about a young woman's experience - a mother's experience - so it was personal.

Harriet Jacobs, although biracial (which was extremely common in slavery), was born into slavery because her mother was a slave, and the law considered the children to be in the same condition as the mother.  She had such a pleasant upbringing living with her parents and brother that she had no idea she was enslaved.  When her mother died, she lived with her mother's mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew.  And when her mistress died, she became the property of her mistress' five-year old niece.  But it was her young mistress' father, Dr. James Norcom, who emotionally tormented and sexually harassed Jacobs.  This was the reason Jacobs came to desire freedom for the first time, and this became the pressing issue to make her story public - to bring light to the sins and crimes of slavery that burden young female slaves.  

Thinking she could fend off Norcom's exploits, Jacob became sexually involved with a white lawyer, Samuel Sawyer, who was kind to her.  Jacobs took responsibility for her poor choices, but felt pressured into immorality because of her circumstances; it was a very painful decision for her to make. She had two children with Sawyer, and because of the law, those children became the property of Dr. Norcom, who consistently threatened Jacobs with the sale of her children if she did not succumb to his requests.  

Harriet Jacobs (1813 - 1897)
I had my secret hopes; but I must fight my battle alone.  I had a woman's pride, and a mother's love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them.  My master had power and the law on his side; I had a determined will.  There is might in each.
Now that Jacobs was a mother, her life and purpose changed completely.  This determined and sagacious young women rose to the occasion and challenged injustice and inhumanity for the sake of her children and her right to liberty. Surrounded by family and friends who absolutely loved her, and complete strangers who risked their own lives to help her, Jacobs made the decision to escape slavery and save her children.  (By the way, I love how God provided all of these people to help Jacobs.  Even in the North, where a different form of racism existed, there were still people desirous to assist her.) Her long journey was so exhausting, you will be shocked to learn what she suffered to gain freedom for herself and her children.  As she wholeheartedly believed: "...liberty is more valuable than life."

Harriet Jacobs is my new hero.  She conducted herself with godly character and used prudence and good judgment to make difficult decisions, even when she knew the law was wrong.  She was a fierce protector of her children, and was motivated by pure love to save them.  And as she was a lover of righteousness and liberty, her pride enabled her to be courageous and bold.  

On slavery, Jacobs said,
I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks.  It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. 
I would encourage anyone interested in the personal narrations of American slavery not to pass up this story.  Yes, the subject matter is shocking, heart wrenching, unsettling, and difficult, but it is also unreservedly encouraging and triumphant.  It inspires perseverance, prudence, justice, righteousness, loyalty, hope, and love; and it has a perfectly joyful ending. This is one story I will cherish forever.


Jean said...

Isn't it a wonderful book? Harriet Jacobs was an amazing person, and I agree--a heroine to me.

Jillian said...

Oh, this sounds excellent. If I remember right, this was printed to try to speak to the women in America -- so they'd prod their husbands to do something about slavery. I'm kind of fascinated by the way women had to maneuver the system to have a voice in politics, & did maneuver it, to great effect. We tend to view nineteenth century government as a male system, but the women were definitely in there! Unofficially.

I keep thinking I'll be assigned this one for school, but I haven't been yet. I have read excerpts in an anthology for an American lit class, though. I remember the voice was very strong. I very much plan to read it.

Ruth said...

Yes, it is. I even choked up a few times. It was one of those stories that I couldn't find a stopping place. I just wanted to keep reading.

Ruth said...

Yes, she wrote it to touch the consciences of women and mothers, specifically in the North. (I think Stowe did the same.) Women are usually the ones filled with compassion and sensitivities that alert our hearts to action. If they had to go through their husbands to get something done, so be it.

Unfortunately, I think I remember Jacobs was disappointed that many in the North seemed lukewarm to the suffering. Northern society was full of mistreatment toward blacks. But hope did exist and came in the kindness of other women and men who believed in her plight and wanted to help her. So while the overriding powers seemed inactive at the time, there were pockets of those who did what they could to help individual cases, like Jacobs. In addition, her story did not get much publicity until the early 20th century, which is beyond my understanding. Her story should be made into a movie, like Twelve Years a Slave was.

Women may not have been known for writing the stories or leading the war at the forefront, but they were quietly in the background with their sleeves rolled up. After all, women were also running the household, teaching their children, and raising up future generations, and that was not simple, menial work.

I wouldn't wait for this one to be assigned at school. I think you would appreciate it very much.

Unknown said...

I just finished Uncle Tom's Cabin and it was one of the best books I've ever read. I'm very interested in this one! With these two novels plus Gone with the Wind I'm getting a free course in the history of slavery in the US. And talking about the North not being lukewarm to the suffering reminds me of the character Ophelia in Uncle Tom's Cabin who hated slavery but still viewed blacks as dirty and stupid. I'd love to read this book for sure.

Ruth said...

I felt the same way about Uncle Tom's Cabin when I read it. Interestingly, Jacobs contacted Stowe to see if she would like to collaborate on writing her story, but Stowe was not interested. ( I do not understand why.) Stowe had already written UTC (1852), and you would have thought she interviewed Jacobs or read her story before hand because so many of the issues in UTC were represented in Jacobs' story, which was published almost 10 years later.

Anyway, you are right about Ophelia. Sadly, these attitudes were prevalent, but there were also people who did not harbor those feelings in the North and South, and they were instrumental in helping so many slaves escape to freedom. They really are the untold story of hope in this dark history.

So if you like UTC, you will definitely like Harriet Jacob's story.

Deborah said...

Oh, this sounds wonderful! I know I would enjoy reading such a life story. I plan to read Uncle Tom's Cabin, after Gone With the Wind, and I think I will read this one along side it.

Cleo said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed it so much Ruth. There were a few concerns in it that made it only a three-star read for me, but it was my first foray into slave narratives and, really, any concise history of slavery in the U.S., so it was very eye-opening. I was very impressed with Jacobs' spirit and am looking forward to reading the next few on the list.

BTW, we have put up on the Goodreads group a post about stepping up the schedule (and we have a new member!). You may have missed the notification, so I thought I'd let you know.

Ruth said...

If you like these that you listed, we also have a couple of other narratives that we are reading for TWEM: Up From Slavery, one of my favorites, and one by Frederick Douglass. Anyway, something to consider for future reads on a similar topic.

Ruth said...

I figured out that I have been missing all of the comments on that Goodreads WEM group, and I don't know why. So I'll have to figure it out. Did you want to start reading our next book on the list? I'm good with that. I was going to begin Mark Twain, but I can do the next book on the biography list. Let me know.

So now I'll just hop over to your blog and rewrite my comments that I accidentally deleted earlier. : D

Cleo said...

I thought we could start Mr. Douglass on June 16th if that works for you and the next book on July 1st. Both Jacobs' and Douglass' narratives are quite short.

Thanks so much for your comments on my blog. I always appreciate the thoughts you give, because they show how deeply you've thought about what you've read, and they often help me get much more out of the book!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I read this back in college, for an American lit course, and my goodness, what an amazing woman. Such courage and such faith!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Also, I love your new header :-)

Ruth said...

Thank you, thank you. I was trying to find something that was wide, not tall like my last one. This is what I have for now, until I change it again. : D

Anonymous said...

Good review. I remember reading this in grad school. I think it's powerful to hear slavery from the perspective of how a woman experienced it. Another interesting work we read in that course was White Slaves, African Masters, which were narrative written by white Americans and Europeans enslaved by barbary pirates in Africa. Have you read Douglas' narrative yet?

Ruth said...

I have read Douglas' narrative, and right now I am reading his longer history, Life and Times of Frederck Douglass. And next month we are reading Up From Slavery, which I really like.

White Slaves, African Masters looks very interesting. My library doesn't have it, so I'll put it on my wishlist at Amazon. I bet there is a whole history of slavery to be read out there.