Harriet Jacobs, an American abolitionist and autobiographer, was born a slave on February 11, 1813, in Edenton, NC, and wrote a story about her life that will be discussed further. Jacobs expressed her experience and lifepath into a single narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). As an African American, who escaped slavery, the writer became a role model among people and the public community that fought slavery and supported feminism and reformation and abolition of enslavement. Her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, was the daughter of a South Carolina planter and a slave (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). As Harriet hesitantly reports, based on the childhood memories of her grandmother, after the death of the owner, her mother and children were freed, but because of the American Revolution and the subsequent military actions, they became enslaved. Harriet’s story’s crucial point was that until she was six years old, Harriet did not understand that she was a slave, and she was treated fairly, but then the situation has changed. Further, the family of Harriet went through a lot of difficulties, she experienced sexual harassment and other abuse (Yellin, 2020). Harriet was a slave all her life and was treated horribly but proved to be strong to escape slavery and write an uncompromising story on her experience being born a slave.
The lifepath of Harriet Jacobs
Harriet’s childhood highlighted and strained part of her life and experience that should be further explored because she was treated like a piece of merchandise and was protected. It is crucial to analyze the period of childhood because it influenced Harriet’s future life and showed different treatment options that a slave could ever get from the owner. After her first mistress’s death, everything has changed (Jacobs, 1861). Oddly enough, Harriet herself did not know that she was a slave until she was seven years old — her father was a carpenter and paid the owners a certain amount every year and ran his household. It was only after her mother’s death that Harriet was sent to live in her mistress’s house, Margaret Hornibelow. She remembered her childhood as a happy period; her mistress treated her as her child, taught her to read and write. Harriet was glad when a mistress assigned her to do something around the house, which gave her responsibility and the feeling of being an adult. When Harriet was 12, her mistress died, and everyone she knew was sure that she would get her freedom, but it turned out that the mistress had left Harriet to her niece (Jacobs, 1861). As Harriet herself writes, this act of her kind mistress was the only thing that darkens her memory of her. Jacobs’ childhood was full of different events, and both positive and negative experiences that she had impacted the formation of her human qualities, such as fairness and fortitude, that helped her in the future.
Going further through her path, Harriet entered her new household, and another page of life presented. Harriet’s position in the new owners’ family was completely different; they did not show any warm feelings towards her, and soon her life became unbearable due to the harassment of her master, Dr. Norcom. Systematic harassment began when she was only 15 years old. Her owner tried to spoil the pure principles and filled the young mind with impure monstrous images (Jacobs, 1861). The essential point of Harriet’s experience is that others also notice systematic harassment, other slaves sympathize with Harriet, but she struggles to change the situation. On the opposite side, the mistress is only jealous of the problem, while Harriet’s grandmother and a girl herself, as is often the case with sexual harassment victims, are shy to talk about what is happening. When the master refuses to allow Harriet to marry her first love, a free black carpenter, declaring that if he sees them together again, he will shoot him, she succumbs to the advances of Samuel Sawyer, a young man from a white aristocratic family. Nevertheless, their relationship looks serious enough; they continue to date for several years. Samuel tries to buy her several times. Harriet gives birth to two children, whom Sawyer suggests writing under his last name. After Harriet once again rejects all of Dr. Norcom’s offers and abusive actions, he sends her to work as a domestic servant for his son and daughter-in-law on the plantation (Jacobs, 1861). He promised that her children will live on the ranch and when they grow up, they will be sold (Jacobs, 1861). All these events impact Harriet in her twenties to run and hide despite the challenges and oppression surrounding her as a slave and are familiar to other enslaved people.
The way to freedom was not easy for Harriet, and aftershocks from slavery chased her through life. The events led Harriet to the decision to write a story about the enslavement experience that aimed to expose the adverse effects of slavery from the female perspective, which was absent in society (Shi, 2015). Harriet was in the attic, in a cramped little room under the roof, suffering from the heat in summer and the cold in winter (Stevens, 1852). Finally, after seven years, Harriet manages to break out of her captivity and reach the free states on a boat. Nevertheless, racial segregation and racial prejudice existed in the North, so Harriet maintains a certain distance from white society while Dr. Norcom was determined to find her (Jacobs, 1861). Immediately after Dr. Norcom’s death, his daughter and her husband arrived in the North, hoping to capture Harriet and her children, whose sale they considered illegal. This time everything is resolved safely thanks to the care of Harriet’s employer, Mrs. Willis, who bought freedom for Harriet and her children. It is noteworthy that Mrs. Willis did this against Harriet’s wishes. Jacobs started to find ways to get her story out for everyone to hear. As she finishes her memoir, she quips that her narrative ends with freedom, not the usual wedding, contrasting her story with the plot of a sentimental 19th-century novel.
Harriet Jacobs lived a horrible life as a slave and managed to escape the enslavement, which leads her to tell her true imaginative story that will be forever remembered. She always focused on God and presented a unique perspective that was hidden or neglected in society. She wrote a book by a woman, a former slave, a book with great potential to expose the sexual and social violence inherent in slavery. Alluding to the themes, she would address in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs recounted the sexual abuse and family destruction she witnessed in North Carolina (Miller, 2003). Harriet Jacobs’ memoirs became a historical source on the history of the African-American community, and a story of a person who found herself in a difficult life situation and managed to overcome circumstances and preserve human dignity. While Harriet worked quietly on her story, former male slave autobiographers reinterpreted the narrative of slavery after her work, which was the most crucial for her information to be present and challenge the enslavement’s current views.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by L. Maria Child. Thayer & Eldridge, 1861.
Jacobs, Harriet. The Double Burden of Harriet Jacobs. Miller, Jennie. International Social Science Review 78, no. 1/2 (2003): 31-41. Web.
Shi, E. David. America: The Essential Learning Edition. Edited by Katie Hannah. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Stevens, William. A True Tale of Slavery. From The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation. W. Stevens, Printer, 1852.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Harriet Jacobs. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020. Encyclopedia Britannica, Web.
Yellin, Fagan Jean. Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004), Civil War Era NC, Web.