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
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
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
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,
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
: 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?
: 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
Amy Post, who suggested to Jacobs that she write her life story, and like
Lydia Maria Child
edited it); the Nat Turner revolt; the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law; the publication
of Uncle Tom's Cabin
; the firing on Fort Sumter.
: 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
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
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
can fruitfully be compared/contrasted with the classic
male slave narrative, Frederick
. 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
: Find a troubling passage. What is troubling?
Why? What does this suggest? Why do you think that Incidents
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.