Harriet Jacobs lived a brutal and extraordinary life. Her story is appalling, sad, fascinating and inspiring all at once. Harriett’s life is all about the hardships of being a female piece of property. She writes intentionally in a women’s voice, highlighting gender issues. She hoped to appeal to free white women, to help them understand the abject cruelty of slavery and urgency of the abolitionist movement. Amy Post, an early feminist who attended the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, encouraged to tell her story. Amy Post was a Quaker and an active abolitionist.
This book is a true gem of early feminism and historical significance. I found it for $3.50 at the bookstore at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. First published in 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent, it’s one of the few personal accounts written by a woman born into slavery in the southern United States. There are hardly any first-person accounts from American slaves, as most didn’t read or write.
There are so many appalling stories of cruelty in this slim book, only 163 pages long. It’s hard to decide what to highlight here. The reality of the terrors of slave life were not taught to me in school.
Harriett’s graphic story depicts the reality of the particular horrors known to the female slave. As a female slave grows from childhood into a teenager, her life changes. Whatever self-respect and dignity she might have tried to hang on to is stripped away as her womanly body is sought after by her owner. As she says:
“No pen can give an adequate description of the all pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear…When she is fourteen, her owner, his sons or the overseer, or all of them…bribe her ..or whip or starve her into submission to their will…resistance is hopeless…”
Harriett shows us the the fate of all female slaves was the same. She explains the sequence of events. The laws pertaining to slaves protected the owners. When a slave becomes pregnant, she cannot say who the father is. No one can talk of it. It was actually a crime in the southern United States for a slave woman, for any slave, to say who the father of her child was. A crime for which she could be beaten to death without a thought. When she becomes pregnant, she’s shamed by the community. The slaves are afraid to speak of what they know is happening.
Once the baby is born to a slave woman, he is denied and rejected by the owner. The owner’s wife rejected the slave woman and the baby as well. And there are layers of hate from the owner’s wife as she lived with a constant humiliation. For the wives know what’s transpiring in their own homes; they are angry and jealous. But are helpless to take action.
Women couldn’t legally own money or property then. When a free white woman married, all she owned was turned over to her husband, so the wives were powerless. The anger and jealousy is displaced towards the slave girl. The mistress cruelly denigrates the slave girl, disdaining her and beating her at will. The next step for the slave woman is being forced to wean her own baby and nourish the babies of her owner’s wife with her breastmilk.
Harriett’s life was extraordinary. She lived through things that most people couldn’t endure. For the first six years of her life, Harriett didn’t know she was property, a slave. Her father was a skilled carpenter who was fortunate to be owned by a kindhearted mistress, who allowed him a special arrangement of paying her yearly as he took skilled work for which he was paid for around the local countryside. So, for the first six years of her life, Harriett was unaware of the horrors of slave life.
Harriett’s mother’s owner/mistress was the daughter of Harriett’s maternal grandmother’s owner/mistress. Harriett’s mother was weaned at the age of three months to nurse her mistress’ baby. And these are the actions of exceptionally kind slave owners! The actions she described later of cruel slave owners made me despair for the human race.
Harriet’s mother passes away when she is 6. She is cared for by her maternal grandmother and her mistress/owner, who is kind to her. Kindness in a slave owner is always framed in the context of more heinous actions of others. She is fed well, has a warm place to sleep, is taught to sew by her mistress and also given reading and writing lessons. When Harriett turns 12, her mistress dies. In her will, she distributes her few slaves among her own family members. Harriett, at the age of 12, belongs to a 5 year old girl, her mistress’s niece. So, Harriett starts her life with Dr. and Mrs. Flint and their 5 year old girl. Harriett’s grandmother and brother also belong to the Flints now. Dr. Flint puts her 70 year old grandmother up on the auction block. Even the local genteel community is appalled at his callousness. An elderly white mistress buys her and frees her.
Harriett finds out the Flint family doesn’t bother to actually feed their slaves. The house slaves catch what scraps they can from leftovers. And they don’t have beds, they sleep on the floor. Harriett witnesses the cruelty of slave owners for the first time with Dr. Flint. For an unknown infraction, a slave from the doctor’s plantation is brought to the house and hung by his arms, without his feet touching the ground. The doctor says he’s to stay there until he finished his tea time later that day.Hours later, the doctor comes out of his mansion and whips the man hundreds and hundreds of times. The area surrounding him is covered with blood and gore as the man screams and begs for his life. This is a regular occurrence.
Another aspect of slavery that wasn’t taught to me in school was the horrors of New Year’s Day. This time and day of great celebration was a horrific day for the slaves. It’s sale day. Masters who were humane were thronged by slaves begging to be taken by them, the slaves knew who were the most cruel within forty miles. New Year’s Eve was when slave mothers lay in dread, knowing they could lose all their children at once on New Year’s Day to the auction block. Harriett asks the reader to contrast their New Year’s celebration with the slave’s experience.
Harriett eventually escapes from the cruel Flint household. She amazingly lives in a small underground space under the floor in her grandmother’s house for seven years, until she can access a hazardous passage to the North. She becomes misshapen as she is unable to stand up straight in there and endures severe illness.
Once she makes it to the North, she’s still in danger of being caught. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, allowed local authorities to capture and return runaway slaves in the territory of the United States and levied punishments to those who aided the runaways. So, Dr. Flint had the right to search for her and just take her back. He came up to search for her on several occasions. She managed to keep herself hidden with the help of kind and brave women interested in the abolitionist cause.
Wondering what was left out of your textbooks about the story of American slavery? Read this riveting, informative, eye-opening story, written by the remarkable and brave Harriet Jacobs. There is so much more in this book, it’s an amazing piece of feminist historical significance.
Read more about this extraordinary woman at this website from the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.