Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897)
Contributing Editor: Jean Fagan Yellin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Primary problems that arise in teaching Jacobs include:
1. The question of authorship: Could a woman who had been held in slavery have written such a literary book?
2. The question of her expressions of conflict about her sexual experiences.
3. The question of veracity: How could she have stayed hidden all those years?
To address these questions, point to Jacobs's life: She learned to read at six years. She spent her seven years in hiding sewing and reading (doubtless reading the Bible, but also reading some newspapers, according to her account). And in 1849, at Rochester, she spent ten months working in the Anti-Slavery Reading Room, reading her way through the abolitionists' library.
Discuss sexual roles assigned white women and black women in nineteenth-century America: free white women were told that they must adhere to the "cult of domesticity" and were rewarded for piety, purity, domesticity, and obedience. Black slave women were (like male slaves) denied literacy and the possibility of reading the Bible; as Jacobs points out, in North Carolina after the Nat Turner rebellion, slaves were forbidden to meet together in their own churches. Their only chance at "piety" was to attend the church of their masters. They were denied "purity"--if by "purity" is meant sex only within marriage--because they were denied legal marriage. The "Notes" to the standard edition of Incidents read: "The entire system worked against the protection of slave women from sexual assault and violence, as Jacobs asserts. The rape of a slave was not a crime but a trespass upon her master's property" (fn 2, p. 265). Denied marriage to a man who might own a home and denied the right to hold property and own her own home, the female slave was, of course, denied "domesticity." Her "obedience," however, was insisted upon: not obedience to her father, husband, or brother, but obedience to her owner. Slave women were excluded from patriarchal definitions of true womanhood; the white patriarchy instead formally defined them as producers and as reproducers of a new generation of slaves, and, informally, as sexual objects. Jacobs is writing her narrative within a society that insists that white women conform to one set of sexual practices and that black women conform to a completely contradictory set. Her awareness of this contradiction enables her to present a powerful critique; but it does not exclude her from being sensitive to a sexual ideology that condemns her.
Concerning the accuracy of this autobiography, refer to the exhaustive identification of people, places, and events in the standard edition. Concerning the period in hiding, point out that the date of Jacobs's escape has been documented by her master's "wanted" ad of June, 1835, and the date of her Philadelphia arrival has been documented by June, 1842 correspondence; both are reproduced in the standard edition. Discuss the history of Anne Frank--and of others who hid for long periods to avoid persecution (e.g., men "dodging" the draft during World War II and the Vietnam War, etc.).
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes: The struggle for freedom; the centrality of the family and the attempt to achieve security for the family; the individual and communal efforts to achieve these goals; the relationships among women (among generations of black women; between black slave women and slaveholding white women, between black slave women and non-slave-holding white women); the problem of white racism; the problem of the institution of chattel slavery; the issue of woman's appropriate response to chattel slavery and to tyranny: Should she passively accept victimization? Should she fight against it? How should she struggle--within the "domestic sphere" (where the patriarchy assigned women) or within both the domestic and the "public sphere" (which the patriarchy assigned to men)? How can a woman tell her story if she is not a "heroine" who has lived a "blameless" life? How can a woman create her own identity? What about the limits of literary genre? What about the limits imposed on women's discussion of their sexual experiences?
Historical Issues: These involve both the antebellum struggle against white racism and against slavery, and the struggle against sexism. Jacobs's story raises questions about the institution of chattel slavery; patriarchal control of free women in the antebellum period; the struggle against slavery (black abolitionists, white abolitionists, within the white community, within the free black community, within the slave community); the historic struggle against white racism (in the antebellum North); the historic effort of the anti-slavery feminists, among the Garrisonian abolitionists, who attempted to enter the public sphere and to debate issues of racism and slavery (women like Sarah and Angelina Grimké, like Amy Post, who suggested to Jacobs that she write her life story, and like Lydia Maria Child, who edited it); the Nat Turner revolt; the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law; the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin; the firing on Fort Sumter.
Personal Issues: The narrator constructs a self who narrates the book. This narrator expresses conflict over some of her history, especially her sexual history (see above). She is rejected by her grandmother, then later accepted (but perhaps not fully); near the end of her book, she wins her daughter's full acceptance. All of this speaks to the importance of intergenerational connections among the women in this book. Near the conclusion, the narrator expresses her deep distress at having her freedom bought by her employer, a woman who is her friend: she feels that she has been robbed of her "victory," that in being purchased she has violated the purity of her freedom struggle. Writing the book, she gains that victory by asserting control over her own life.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Incidents appears to be influenced by (1) the novel of seduction and (2) the slave narrative. It presents a powerful, original transformation of the conventions of both of these genres. What is new here is that--in contrast to the type of the seduction novel--the female protagonist asserts her responsibility for her sexual behavior, instead of presenting herself as a powerless victim. This is a new kind of "fallen woman," who problematizes the whole concept of "fallen womanhood." In contrast to the type of the slave narrative, Incidents presents not a single male figure struggling for his freedom against an entire repressive society, but a female figure struggling for freedom for her children and herself with the aid of both her family and of much of a black community united in opposition to the white slavocracy. Even from within that slavocracy, some women assert their sisterhood to help. The language in Incidents suggests both the seduction novel and the slave narrative. The passages concerning Brent's sexual history are written in elevated language and are full of evasions and silences; the passages concerning her struggle for freedom are written in simpler English and are direct and to the point--or they are hortatory, in the style of Garrisonian abolitionism.
I have touched on this above, in discussing history. Jacobs's Linda Brent writes that she is trying to move the women of the North to act against slavery: these, I take it, were free white women who were not (yet) committed to abolitionism and who were not (yet) engaged in debate in the "public sphere." In class, we talk about the ways in which Jacobs's Linda Brent addresses her audience in Chapter 10, and the ways in which, as a writer reflecting on her long-ago girlhood, she makes mature judgments about her life.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Incidents can fruitfully be compared/contrasted with the classic male slave narrative, Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative. It can also be read in connection with Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, and with "women's" fiction, much of which ostensibly centers on a woman's sexual choices and possibilities, and on women's intergenerational relationships.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Study questions: Find a troubling passage. What is troubling? Why? What does this suggest? Why do you think that Incidents was believed the production of a white woman, not of a former slave? Why do you think that Incidents was thought to be a novel, not an autobiography?
The letters appended to the Harvard University Press edition, and the Introduction to that edition, should prove useful. In addition, the secondary works cited in the text headnote should prove of interest and of help.