The Slave's Narrative

By Charles T. Davis; Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

Text and Contexts of Harriet Jacobs'
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
Written by Herself

JEAN FAGAN YELLIN

Your proposal to me has been thought over and over again, but not without some most painful remembrance. Dear Amy, if it was the life of a heroine with no degradation associated with itl Far better to have been one of the starving poor of Ireland whose bones had to bleach on the highways than to have been a slave with the curse of slavery stamped upon yourself and children.I have tried for the last two years to conquor . . . [my stubborn pride] and I feel that God has helped me, or I never would consent to give my past to anyone, for I would not do it without giving the whole truth.If it could help save another from my fate, it would be selfish and unChristian in me to keep it back. 1

With these words, more than a century ago, the newly-emancipated fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs expressed her conflicting responses to a friend's suggestion that she make her life story public.Although she finally succeeded in writing and publishing her sensational tale, its authenticity- long questioned—has recently been denied. Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself has just been transformed from a questionable narrative to a well-documented pseudonymous slave narrative, however, by the discovery of a cache of her letters. 2

This correspondence establishes Jacobs' authorship and clarifies the role of her editor.The letters present a unique chronicle of the efforts of a female fugitive slave to write and publish her autobiography in ante‐ bellum America.In doing so, they recount her involvement with an unlikely grouping of mid-century writers: litterateur Nathaniel P. Willis, best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe, black abolitionist William C. Nell and white abolitionist L. Maria Child.

Authenticating Jacobs' authorship of Incidents sparks the need for a reexamination of this book within multiple contexts: black history and letters, women's history and letters, and American history and letters. But while identifying Incidents as the work of black Harriet Jacobs—and not her editor, white L. Maria Child—presents an occasion for exploring its place within these contexts, it does not change this text or make it

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