Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Education and Abolition

Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Education and Abolition

Article excerpt

Some thirty years before Harriet Ann Jacobs opened the Jacobs Free School in Alexandria, Virginia in January 1864, one of her first students was her fifty-threeyear-old uncle, Fred. The seventeen-year-old Harriet appreciated her uncle's "most earnest desire to learn to read" and promised to teach him.1 As slaves, both teacher and student risked the punishment of "thirtynine lashes on [the] bare back" as well as imprisonment for violating North Carolina's anti-literacy laws targeting African Americans.2 Nevertheless they agreed to meet three times a week in a "quiet nook" where she instructed him in secret.3 While the primary goal for him was to read the Bible, this moment in Jacobs' slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl revealed her early commitment to African American literacy and education as well as her rejection of the laws of American slavery. In that moment, the vocations of education and abolition took root for Harriet Jacobs.

Throughout her life, Harriet Jacobs embraced the twin vocations of educator and abolitionist. To expose slavery as a "pit of abominations" not only helped to undermine it, but by educating African Americans she frustrated the very idea of African American inferiority upon which slavery had been built.4 Incidents is thus not only an account of the experiences she endured as an enslaved African American woman, but also, in light of her public activities as an educator and abolitionist, a text intended to enlighten white Northern women on why and how American slavery should be abolished. Considering these aims, it is no wonder that, in a letter to her friend Amy Post, Jacobs expressed feeling somewhat conflicted about writing her life story.5 Exposing in shrewd detail the institution of American slavery ostensibly meant, for Jacobs, exposing, among others things, her sexual abuse "for the world to read."6 With the same daring approach that she used to teach her uncle Fred to read and write, she intended to educate the hearts and minds of women in the North on the issue of African American enslavement and the notion of racial equality.

Born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, Harriet Jacobs had no formal education and she recognized the limits of her informal education as a slave, a fugitive slave, and, later, a free African American woman.7 Like Jacobs, many enslaved African Americans yearned to gain knowledge, but most slaveholders forbade it. Instead, they attempted to reinforce a "sense of innate inferiority" among slaves so as to mold them into being obethent and submissive.8 Yet, as historian Thomas Webber argues, enslaved African Americans, for the most part, did not absorb these teachings; rather, they developed their own ways of making sense of the world.9 For instance, when Jacobs' father taught her "to feel that Af rican Americans [are] human beings," she realized that slaveholders regarded African American humanity as "blasphemous doctrine."10 Thus the white slaveholder's teachings collided with the teachings of her father, and as a result, she learned to challenge the conception of African American slaves as merely "property," and thus inferior, anything but "human." This epiphany, however, can be considered a product of her informal education, which she certainly regarded as vital to her intellectual growth.

After Jacobs escaped to the North sometime in June 1842, the antislavery lecture tour became a forum where she conversed with abolitionists who supported the abolition of slavery and the fight for racial equality. This kind of informal education arguably prepared her and other African American abolitionists to lay claim to the rights and obligations of American citizenship. Still, according to Jacobs, none of those informal educational moments could stand in the place of a formal education, which probably explains why she worked to send her children to school. Indeed, in the second paragraph of her preface, she told her readers about her hard work to support herself as well as to provide an "education for her children. …

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