Born in Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs has the honor of being the first African American woman to write a slave narrative in America. There have been countless stories of African Americans and the horrific conditions of slavery that they faced, however Harriet Jacobs story is one that stands out above the rest.
Harriet Jacobs: The Identity of A Slave Girl
The story of Harriet Jacobs is one filled with turmoil and crucial punishment. Throughout her life she was constantly bombarded with one unusual predicament after another. Not being able to love the man she wants to and then having a child with a man just to spite her master, Jacobs fought relentlessly to find her place in the world. In this blog/essay I will explore Harriet Jacobs story through the lens of her many identities she held within her slave narrative. I argue that Jacobs used her story not only to rewrite her identity for others to relate to but also to finally solidify it.
Not Your Normal Childhood
Harriet Jacobs was born to parents who did not live in the typical slave manner which as a result allowed her childhood to mimic that of white children. Jacobs father was extremely skilled in carpentry and was allowed to travel for work and earn his own money. The family was allowed to stay together in the home which at that time was uncommon among slaves. I imagine that for most slave children at a certain age they were made aware of their circumstances and the notion that they were owned. In the video below Dr. Jean Fagan Yellin explains how cherished Jacobs was by her surrounding family even calling her the “pet” of the family. This love and admiration from everyone around her helped shape early on the identity to which Jacobs related to.For Jacobs, she was able to live a childhood oblivious to her succeeding circumstances which resulted in an identity of a free person.
“A Slave, being property, can hold no property”
After finding out she was owned the world that Harriet Jacobs knew as 6 yr old girl would never be the same. Soon Jacobs became under the influence of Dr. Flint, the husband of her mistress, who took a peculiar liking to her. Like many young girls the thought of love rushed over Jacobs after she coming in contact with a fellow colored carpenter who wanted her hand in marriage and to buy her freedom. Jacobs knew however that this would be a problem seeing as though she was property and he was a freeborn man. Once Dr. Flint found out about the situation he approached Jacobs and an argument ensued.
Dr. Flint verbally tried to break Jacobs down mentally accusing her of thinking of herself more highly than a puppy. Comparing Jacobs, a human, to an animal is a blow to her identity as a negro woman. Kimberly Drake writes in her article about Identity in autobiographies that “Slavery’s constant attack upon the body and mind of the slave can result in a destructively circumscribed identity” (91). Jacobs was not the average slave woman in regards to holding her tongue and perhaps this came from her early years as a child. She speaks to Dr. Flint in a way that he deems inappropriate and he strikes her for the first time. In a way Jacobs identity if altered from that of a slave woman and more of a slave man. She exhibits behavior and boldness that is not seen in women of that time. Drake explains in her article that female slaves were forced to work like men and to breed like animals and as a result was denied the right to acquire feminine attributes. If this is true how would it account for Jacobs demeanor seeing as though she was not forced to work in the fields as slave and was taught to read, write, and attend to housework.
New Man, New Identity?
As time went on the effects of slavery took it’s toil on Harriet as she writes “My master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother”. Jacobs took calculated measures against her master Dr. Flint and knowingly gave up her virginity to another white man, Mr. Sands,before Dr. Flint could acquire it. For years she had been told and identified that the purest part of women was her virginity and that she should never disgrace herself by having a child before marriage. It speaks volumes that someone would go against their core beliefs, values, and identity as a pure woman just to spite and oppressor. Jacobs did believe that Mr. Sands loved her and it was her hope that he would buy her freedom but she was not so lucky.
A Relentless Mother
Can you imagine being a slave during the 1800's? Can you image hiding in a attic crawl space for 7 years? Well thats exactly what Harriet Jacobs did between 1835 to 1842.
Living in an attic space for seven years and being so close to her children but not being able to speak to them must have been cruel punishment. Extremely cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer Jacobs endured the hardship that many women face in slavery, which is not being there to help their children grown up. It is part of a woman’s identity to connect and help raise her children and because of the circumstances that slavery elicit this duty is cut short for most. The reader sees this when Jacobs says “I heard the voices of my children. There was joy and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow”. Harriet knew that her children were safe as long as she stayed hidden and yet even though she could hear them through the months it is not the same as being able to touch and feel their presence.
Coming Full Circle
With the help of some friends in the north Jacobs disappeared with her children into a free state. Her friend Mrs. Bruce employed someone in negotiating her bought freedom from Mr. Dodge, a new slave master married to her new mistress. Jacobs had mixed feelings about her freedom being bought “I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his”. Just like in the beginning Jacobs could not fathom being the property of another human being. Her identity was that of knowing no one should be owned. Having her freedom bought for her returns her back to the identity she possessed that 6 year old girl. Okay maybe not quite the same seeing as though she went through some very heinous trials and tribulations. The ending of the story concludes with Jacobs saying that “The dream of my life is not yet realized” making her story so much more than just freedom. In a way Jacobs identiy is not soley based on her being free from slavery but she correlates her identity as being a mother, a future homeowner, and the chance that her children will eventually will be treated equally in the future. For Harriet Jacobs her ending is actually a new beginning.
Drake, Kimberly. Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender, and Identity in Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Oxford University Press. Vol. 22, NO. 4. Web.