A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, part II

For the first book post in this series about the anti-racist reading list, I’d like to discuss Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which you can find and read for free on the Internet. Almost more than any other text, it is this one which white students – particularly women, which I’ll discuss in a moment – remember and comment on. It has a real effect on readers, in the way it tells a clear story and highlights an intersectional (before that word was ever coined) understanding of enslavement and history.

Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved, although she writes that she did not know this until she was 5 or 6 years old. After she was freed she wanted to have her memoir published, and through contacts, sent an outline of her story to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe refused to write Jacobs’ story, but did ask if she could use details of the outline in future work – Jacobs said no, and determined to write her story herself. Because of her concerns regarding sexual ethics and her children’s parentage, Jacobs changed all the names to pseudonyms, becoming “Linda Brent” in the narrative. This complicated scholarly understanding of the text for almost a century.

Because it was published in 1861, Incidents was not widely read, although it was acclaimed by critics. In fact, it almost disappeared from popular literature altogether by the 20th century, and those who read it assumed it was a novel, possibly written by Lydia Maria Child. No one could track down “Linda” or any of the other characters, so that seemed a reasonable assumption. It was not until the scholarship of Jean Fagin Yellin in the 1980s that Jacobs was recovered as the writer, and her story as a true enslavement narrative.

So why does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl belong on an anti-racist reading list, and why does it seem to affect students so powerfully?

In the book, Harriet Jacobs (I will refer to her by her real name throughout this post) speaks to specific traumas experienced by Black women during enslavement, and the specific ways in which white women, both Southern and Northern, contribute to that trauma. Jacobs mentions that she’s writing to white women because they need to know what life is like for enslaved women in the South.

Jacobs was prevented by her enslaver, Dr. Norcom, from marrying the man she loved, a free Black man who also offered to buy her. Norcom then proceeded to sexually harass and torment her for years, eventually threatening to confine her and rape her in a cabin he was building for expressly that purpose. When faced against this mounting evil, and with absolutely no rights, Jacobs makes a choice. She offers herself to a local white man who was always nice to her, and hopes to get pregnant, which she believes will disgust Norcom and force him to leave her alone. This calculus works, but she gives up her virginity in the bargain, which crosses the morals she was raised with, and which gravely upsets her grandmother. (And Norcom continues to at least verbally assault her.)

Outmoded notions of “purity” notwithstanding, Jacobs tries to solve her problem the only way she can – by choosing to whom she gives her body. She describes it this way:

“It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy. There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.”

Jacobs knows that the effects of this decision will be serious – she will be judged by all who know she is “impure,” which includes every person who reads her narrative. This is intensely shameful for her, but Jacobs’ willingness to share her story of survival is what makes her narrative so powerful, and what tends to impress students who read her work. Perhaps even more significantly, Jacobs extends her story and her ethics beyond just herself, and explains the position of the enslaved Black woman to those who know nothing of that life:

But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery. I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.

Jacobs is writing from a proto-intersectional perspective here. She recognizes how gender and race worked together to create a unique oppression that neither the enslaved Black man nor any white woman (or man) could personally understand. What she is also invoking here is the unique ethical position of the enslaved person, in that, they have no access to real ethical choices. Jacobs wanted to be married and live her life according to the values she believed in, but that was simply not an option available to her. So she was forced to apply different values to her situation, and did the best she could.

Women in my classes tend to remember this text and bring it up often in discussions. White female students are often impacted by Jacobs appearing to speak directly to them, over 150 years later, imploring them to understand how their experiences are so vastly different from hers. Black female students are often appreciative of Jacobs’ boldness and willingness to talk about the ways enslavement affected Black women specifically. Incidents offers readers a careful look at the ways enslavement and post-Civil War systemic racism created the “triple jeopardy” Frances Beal identified in 1970: race/gender/class, weaponized by white society and institutions to oppress women of color. This text gives students a longer view to see how far back this violence goes, and provides a lens for them to identify where it is still seen today. Jacobs’ work is a must read for everyone, and a great place to start an anti-racist reading list.

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One Response to A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, part II

  1. Pingback: A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, Part III | Sharyn Emery

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