Magazine article Humanities

Incidents in the Life of an Abolitionist

Magazine article Humanities

Incidents in the Life of an Abolitionist

Article excerpt

WILL BE GIVEN FOR THE APPREHENSION AND DELIVERY OF MY SERVANT GIRL HARRIET SHE IS A LIGHT MULATTO, 21 YEARS OF AGE, ABOUT 5 FEET 4 INCHES HIGH, OF A THICK AND CORPULENT HABIT, HAVING ON HER HEAD A THICK COVERING OF BLACK HAIR THAT CURLS NATURALLY, BUT WHICH CAN BE EASILY COMBED STRAIGHT. SHE SPEAKS EASILY AND FLUENTLY, AM\ND HAS AN AGREEABLE CARRIAGE AND ADDRESS. BEING A GOOD SEAMSTRESS, SHE HAS BEEN ACCUSTOMED TO DRESS WELL, HAS A VARIETY OF VERY FINE CLOTHES MADE IN PREVAILING FASHION AND WILL PROBABLY APPEAR, IF ABROAD, TRICKED OUT IN GAY AND FASHIONABLE FINERY AS THIS GIRL ABSCONDED FROM THE PLANTATION OF MY SON WITHOUT ANY KNOWN CAUSE OR PROVOCATION, IT IS PROBABLE SHE DESIGNS TO TRANSPORT HERSELF TO THE NORHT....

THE HARRIET JACOBS PAPERS PROJECT

WHEN HARRIET JACOBS EEARNED that President Lincoln was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, she wrote a friend: "Life has just begun, and I pray to God to spare all the dear good people... that have labored so faithfully to see the fruit of their labor gathered in."

The letter is one of six hundred documents by and about Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave who became an author and abolitionist. A two-volume edition of the material will appear in print this year as part of the Harriet Jacobs Papers Project.

"Millions of women were held in slavery, but Harriet is the only one we have papers for," says Jean Pagan Yellin, a professor of English at Pace University. According Yellin, this will be the first scholarly edition of papers of a black woman held in slavery. "Soiourner Truth was illiterate and Harriet Tubman was illiterate. Literacy among blacks was against the law back then. So Harriet Jacobs's voice becomes the only voice we have for those millions, and it's such an extraordinary voice." The story is one that Yellin first disbelieved: Jacobs tells a sensational story of being exploited by a male slave owner, of taking an unmarried white attorney as a lover to fend off her owner, then running away and hiding in an attic in the town for seven years before making her escape to New York.

Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. She learned from her mistress to read and write, an activity that became illegal in North Carolina in 1830.

She became the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston 1861, London 1862). According to Incidents, as a child she remained unaware of being a slave "till six years of happy childhood had passed away." The family, which included a brother, lived in a home behind the tavern owned by their mistress, Elizabeth Horniblow. Harriet's father, of mixed parentage like her mother, was a carpenter and was allowed to hire himself out. Life was comfortable.

That changed, she writes, when her mistress died and new master, Dr. James Norcom, began pursuing her for sexual favors. To escape his attentions, she encouraged a relationship with a lawyer in town and had two children by him. In Incidents she describes the situation:

It chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother and often spoke to me in the street. he became interested in me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. he expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. he constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.

Jacobs acknowledged the tale would shock audiences, but attempted to justify her actions.

There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except thai which he gains by kindness and attachment. There may be some sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.

With her owner continuing to create difficulties, Jacobs attempted to escape, but pursuit came quickly. …

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