Thursday, February 6, 2014

Black History Month: Harriet Ann Jacobs

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Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, "Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!" But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow, regardless of the misery he causes, it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate.

~ Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Ann Jacobs was born February 11, 1813, in Edenton, North Carolina to parents Elijah Knox and Delilah Horniblow. Jacobs’ father, the putative product of a white father and black mother--though still a slave--worked as a house carpenter, and her mother lived as chattel property of John Horniblow, a tavern owner. Harriet had one brother, John, and owing to the legal principle of partus sequitur ventrem, both Harriet and John were born in bondage.

Jacobs is most known for her work as an abolitionist and the 1861 publication the biographical slave narrative--under the pseudonym Linda Brent--of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Incidents described, in shocking detail, the travails of being a slave, and more, the intersection of gender and motherhood, which played a significant role in the slave woman’s predicament. Jacobs was the repeated victim of unsolicited sexual advances and abuse, and though she wanted to be free, she could not countenance leaving behind her two children. She was, however, eventually able to escape the stronghold of her cruel master, and finally take up “residence” in “a tiny crawlspace above a porch.”
The space was nine feet long and seven feet wide. Its sloping ceiling, only three feet high at one end, didn't allow her to turn while laying down without hitting her shoulder. Rats and mice crawled over her; there was no light and no ventilation. But her children had been bought by the lawyer (the children’s father) and were now living in the same house. Harriet could even see them while they played outside through a peephole she had drilled. She lived in the crawlspace for seven years, coming out only for brief periods at night for exercise.
Jacobs would eventually go on to secure her freedom, and that of her children, following the abovementioned, and other, harrowing and traumatic events. She would dedicate her freedom to the abolition of the slave system and publish her powerful narrative--one of the very first to chronicle the incredible suffering and oppression that was visited upon women slaves all over the South. Jacobs died, after a long and courageous life, on March 7, 1897 at 84 years old.

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