Harriet Jacobs

By Bridgette Valenti

Harriet Jacobs was born into enslavement around 1815 in Edenton, North Carolina (“Written” 480).  She is the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a semi-autobiographical narrative published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book’s narrator, Linda Brent, is generally regarded as an autobiographical representation of Harriet Jacobs and her experiences in enslavement. However, as Stephanie Li highlights, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written for the specific political purpose of mobilizing abolitionist sentiment and activism among white women, and thus she indicates the importance of “analyz[ing] Linda as a literary figure deliberately constructed to perform certain political aims” rather than “conflat[ing] Jacobs with the text’s protagonist” (Li 15). Aside from Incidents, some of the directly autobiographical information known about Jacobs is taken from letters and correspondences with her contemporaries, which Jean Fagan Yellin thoroughly researched in order to uncover autobiographical facts about Jacobs’s life.

In 1981, Yellin wrote that “the discovery of a cache of [Jacobs’s] letters” allowed for the confirmation of autobiographical elements in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (“Written” 479). Using information from these correspondences, Yellin was able to confirm historical facts about Jacobs and her life. In Edenton, where Jacobs was enslaved for many years, the man who claimed ownership of Jacobs (James Norcom) “subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment” (“Written” 480). Due to threats from Norcom, “She became involved in a sexual liaison with a young white neighbor” and had two children (“Harriet” 56). Yellin writes, “Believing that if she were gone her master might find the children troublesome and sell them, she ran away” (“Harriet” 56). While hiding in a small attic space for years in her grandmother’s Edenton home in order to enact this disappearance, “the father of her children, who had bought them from” Norcom, “allowed them to live with her grandmother,” but he then relocated her daughter to a northern state without granting her children their freedom (“Written” 480). As motherhood is a central theme throughout Jacobs’s narrative, she thoroughly describes the difficulty of not being with her children, and her deep desire to reunite with them. 

According to Yellin, Jacobs left hiding in the attic space and went north as a fugitive in 1842, where she was able to meet up with her children (“Written” 480). However, during this time, Norcom traveled to the north multiple times in order to take Jacobs back into slavery (“Harriet” 56-7). In order to avoid recapture, Jacobs moved around often; she moved to Rochester in 1849, where “she ran an antislavery reading room and met other reformers” (“Written” 481). Rochester is the location where Jacobs met Amy Post, the white abolitionist who encouraged her to write down her story for abolitionist purposes (“Written” 481). In their introduction to the Second Norton Critical Edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough write that “in 1849, when slave catchers were scouring New York City for her, Jacobs took refuge in Rochester, New York, with Amy and Isaac Post” (Foster xi). Her narrative was published in 1861, “aided by black abolitionist William C. Nell and white abolitionist L. Maria Child” (“Harriet” 57). After the publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs partook in various abolitionist and aid-related work in different locations. Yellin describes her “relief work” in Washington, D.C., followed by her work in Alexandria, VA, where she distributed “relief supplies” and “established a free school” (“Harriet” 58). Returning to Washington, Jacobs passed away there in 1897 (Andrews). 

Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with a political purpose in mind, that is,  “To arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage” (Jacobs 5). Because Jacobs writes with an abolitionist political aim, and because she writes semi-autobiographically using pseudonyms and a fictional narrator, scholars have analyzed Incidents in terms of its purpose, literary structure, and how it approaches concepts of motherhood and womanhood through a lens of enslavement. Much scholarship has been dedicated to analyzing the tensions in how Jacobs both appeals to white womanhood and writes within its conventions in order to gain a readership and mobilize abolitionist work, and how she writes a Black womanhood within enslavement that conveys agency and resistances.

In “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering,” Franny Nudelman analyzes Jacobs’s use of sentimental writing and the literary conventions of the time. She writes, “The text’s cultural significance lies neither in Jacobs’s acquiescence to the social and literary standards nor in her defiant rejection of them but in her restless movement between styles of address” (942). In moving between these different styles, Jacobs is “caught between a domestic ideology that relies on female sexual purity and an abolitionist discourse that insistently publicizes the sexual victimization of slave women,” and, in this space, Nudelman argues that “Jacobs is peculiarly ably to elaborate on their interrelatedness, they ways they concur and conflict, and their particular limitations for the narration of black female experience” (942). In “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidence in the Life of a Slave Girl, Li focuses on motherhood as a primary device used in the narrative to appeal to Jacobs’s audience. Writing on this use of motherhood as a sentimental and connecting literary strategy, Li writes, “Using Linda’s maternity as a crucial point of identification with her readers, Jacobs challenges her audience to conceive of the duties […] associated with motherhood as a political position and as a movement of social reform” (18). Jacobs’s primary goal in identifying her audience as white northern women leads her to create a narrator and narrative primarily aimed at political goals and methods of connecting and mobilizing white women for the abolitionist movement, and Li reads motherhood in the narrative as one potent literary strategy for these aims. However, writing in the mode of white female sexual purity is not adequate for Jacobs’s narrative of female enslavement and its sexual violence. As Nudelman valuably underscores, writing a narrative of Black female enslavement within these differing discourses and perspectives allows Jacobs to interrogate the category of (white) womanhood.

Joanne Braxton argues that Jacobs’s writing in this discourse is “an attempt to transform the so-called ‘cult of true womanhood’” (384). In “Harriet Jacobs’ ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’: The Re-Definition of the Slave Narrative Genre,” Braxton discusses “the established criteria used to define the slave narrative genre,” which “have systematically excluded women” (383). She also discusses issues of authenticity surrounding slave narratives, which are pertinent to Jacobs’s narrative as her authorship was contested. She writes that it was “not until 1981” that “Jean F. Yellin publish[ed] evidence establishing Jacobs’s historical identity and the authorship of her narrative,” pointing to Yellin’s biographical research discussed above (382). Braxton argues that these male-centric criteria, and issues of authenticity, have overshadowed literary analysis of women’s slave narratives such as Incidents

The Woman’s Department of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair represents an exclusionary space based on a definition of “woman” as a category involving whiteness by design, a fact bolstered by the Woman’s Department’s essential denial of participation for Black women also presenting at the Fair. This is representative of the racial exclusion built into the concept of “woman” in the Woman’s Department and the historical context of the Fair. In Foster’s and Yarborough’s introduction to Incidents, they write, “As a full-length narrative by a formerly enslaved woman,” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl “challenges the acceptance of narratives by formerly enslaved men as representing all enslaved people” (Foster xix). Indeed, as Braxton underscores in the aforementioned discussion of her scholarship, Jacobs’s narrative enters into a slave narrative genre that historically privileges male narratives as determinators of the conventions and definitions of the genre. In addition to challenging the concept that the male slave narrative is representative of all, however, Jacobs’s literary work also interrogates the category of (white) womanhood as representative of womanhood at large, and as inadequate for Black enslaved female narratives. She writes within its conventions for political purposes, and for this reason portrays her narrator as a Black woman to whom white women can relate on the basis of shared values, but she also depicts the many ways that the discourse of white feminine purity is inadequate for the narratives of all women. Reading Jacobs’s interrogation of the category of white womanhood is fruitful in recovering the exclusion in the Woman’s Department of the World’s Fair. While Jacobs was not physically present at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair, she was alive the year it happened, and her literary work challenges exclusionary structures and practices like those enacted by the Fair’s Woman’s Department. We chose to include her in our literary project of recovery to contribute to and encourage ongoing analysis of Jacobs’s literary and historical significance, and because her contributions are deeply important to interrogation of the Woman’s Department and its exclusion. 

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.” Documenting the American South, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/bio.html. 

Braxton, Joanne M. “Harriet Jacobs’ ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’: The Re-Definition of the Slave Narrative Genre.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 27, no. 2, 1986, pp. 379–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089772. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 2019.

Foster, Frances Smith, and Richard Yarborough. “Introduction.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 2019, pp. vii-xix.

Li, Stephanie. “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Legacy, vol. 23, no. 1, 2006, pp. 14–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25684492. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Nudelman, Franny. “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering.” ELH, vol. 59, no. 4, 1992, pp. 939–64. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2873301. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Harriet Ann Jacobs (c. 1813-1897).” Legacy, vol. 5, no. 2, 1988, pp. 55–61. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25679033. Accessed 9 May 2023.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative.” American Literature, vol. 53, no. 3, 1981, pp. 479–86. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2926234. Accessed 9 May 2023.