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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



7. Slavery and
Freedom


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Lorenzo
Asisara
- Lydia Maria
Child
- William & Ellen Craft
- Frederick
Douglass
- Briton Hammon
- Helen Hunt
Jackson
- Harriet Jacobs
- Abraham Lincoln
- Sorrow Songs
- Harriet Beecher
Stowe
- Suggested
Author
Pairings
•  Timeline
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Authors: Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813-1897)

Sandy Point Plantation
[6832] Sandy Point Plantation, Edenton, North Carolina (1933-40), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, NC21-EDET.V,3-1].

Harriet Jacobs Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born into slavery in North Carolina, Harriet Ann Jacobs was raised both by her free black grandmother and by a white mistress who taught her to read. Upon her mistress's death, Jacobs was willed to Mary Matilda Norcom and sent to live in her household. Mary's father, the prominent physician Dr. James Norcom, soon began making unwelcome sexual advances toward Jacobs, preying on her vulnerability as a slave. Rather than submit to her master, Jacobs chose to become involved with Samuel Sawyer, a white, slave-holding neighbor, with whom she had two children. In 1835, Dr. Norcom, angry at what he viewed as Jacobs's offenses against him, separated her from her children and sent her to work on a plantation in nearby Auburn. Jacobs soon escaped from the plantation but was unable to flee North Carolina. Instead, she was forced to hide in a cramped attic crawlspace in her grandmother's house for nearly seven years, keeping secret watch over her children. In 1842, Jacobs finally managed to escape to the North. Once there, she arranged for her children's escape as well.

In New York, Jacobs worked as a nursemaid in the home of the popular writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis. In 1849, she moved to Rochester to work in the Anti-Slavery Reading Room, where she got to know many prominent abolitionists (including Frederick Douglass) and familiarized herself with anti-slavery literature and feminism in the process. Jacobs eventually determined that she should publicize her own story of exploitation and escape in order to raise public awareness about the condition of women held in slavery. She initially approached Harriet Beecher Stowe, the celebrated author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, about writing her narrative, but ultimately Jacobs decided to compose her history herself. Adopting the pseudonym "Linda Brent" and disguising the names of the other characters in her story, she used her autobiographical narrative to reflect on the sexual harassment and psychological abuse that were so often the lot of the female slave. Because the book departed from the conventions of male-centered slave narratives and also challenged genteel notions of propriety by focusing on issues of sexuality, Jacobs found it difficult to find a publisher. Finally, a Boston firm agreed to publish the manuscript provided Jacobs could get Lydia Maria Child to write an introduction and act as editor. Child agreed to the project and, with the help of her introduction and minor editorial contributions, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861.

Jacobs's history is unique among slave narratives for its focus on the experiences of women, its treatment of sexual exploitation, its emphasis on family life and maternal values, and its self-conscious appeal to an audience of white, female readers. Incidents draws on the conventions of both seduction novels and domestic fiction--two popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental literary forms. The book recounts Jacobs's efforts to maintain her virtue against her master's attempted seduction and celebrates family relationships and domestic ideals of femininity. Jacobs's deployment of sentimental discourse also works to problematize nineteenth-century notions of proper womanhood and exposes the extent to which such ideals were dependent upon economic and racial distinctions. As her story makes clear, the pressures and abuses enslaved black women faced could make it impossible for them to uphold bourgeois standards of virginity and motherhood. Relegated to the status of property, Jacobs faced an enormous struggle in her attempts to control her own sexuality, home life, and family relationships.

Jacobs was finally freed from slavery in 1853, when her New York employer's wife, Cornelia Willis, bought her from the Norcom family for three hundred dollars and then emancipated her. In her narrative, Jacobs notes both her gratitude to her employer and her discomfort with being purchased. Making use of her freedom, she remained active in the anti-slavery cause and did relief work among black refugees from the South during and after the Civil War. Jacobs died while living with her daughter in Washington, D.C.



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