Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself

Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) at the time of the publication of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Written by Herself.

Among the readings this semester (Sp 2011), was included excerpts from "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself" by Harriet Jacobs.  I suggested that students follow the materials as presented in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2nd Edition 2005 edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay), which includes an explanatory essay about how and why Jacobs wrote her narrative under the pseudonym Linda Brent.  Nonetheless, it was apparent to me in reading the midterms that students had gotten their texts helter skelter from a variety of online or used sources, some of which were probably written when some scholars still thought that the Jacobs narrative was a work of fiction and not written by a former black female slave. 
Such work would not have recognized the important intervention literary historian Jean Fagin Yellin had made into our knowledge of Harriet Jacobs in 1987 in her admirable edition of the "Incidents" in which she draws upon the correspondence between Jacobs and Lydia Maria Child, who acted as her editor, and accompanies us through every detail of her escape.  Since having altered the general understanding of the Jacob's narrative, the only slave narrative of a black woman actually written by herself, Yellin has further added to our knowledge publishing "Harriet Jacobs: A Life"(Basic Books 2004), and also completing the Harriet Jacobs Papers.  
Despite her subsequent anonymity, Jacobs was not an obscure or isolated figure during the period in which "Incidents" was published.  History had forgotten her but at the time she lived she was an active participant in the Abolitionist Movement, although she would have obviously been restricted to the female sphere.  In the period in which she wrote her narrative (1861), the public lives of women were severely restricted by custom and by their lack of the franchise.  Despite the dangers of a runaway slave being returned to her owner, Jacobs participated in the Abolitionist Movement in Rochester, New York where she worked in an antislavery reading room and bookstore just above the offices of Frederick Douglass's "North Star" newspaper. Yellin's scholarship substantiates that through her work as an ex-slave, she had an opportunity to meet and work with some of the most progressive women in Northern urban America. 
Because of the nature of Jacob's narrative and the necessity for her including a confession of how she came to engage in pre-marital sex with a white man who was not her husband (the father of her children) but not her owner, her account poses a challenge to our comprehension of the sexual conventions and values of the 19th century South.  We might reasonably wonder, as I did when writing about Jacobs in my first book "Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman," how could a slave be so concerned about preserving her sexual innocence?  How did she ever come to be innocent in the first place in the context of slavery, which I was taught to regard as an ongoing brothel? But as Yellin helps us to better understand, the life of the slave was not monolithic and unvarying.  As we learn from Douglass's narrative as well, slave children, depending upon whether they were born on a large or small plantation, owned by a large or small family and a variety of other factors, were sometimes gradually eased into the full comprehension of their plight as slaves. Until she successfully fled slavery, Jacobs had a family including a free grandmother, even though the families of the slaves were not recognized by law.
The importance of Jacob's story, which is obviously exceptional rather than typical of the conditions of the black female slave, is that we understand that enslavement was defined by the people who lived under it, not solely by the institution itself, which is part of what makes Yellin's narrative a work of literature worthy of our study and reflection.    

Jean Fagin Yellin has painstakingly reconstructed Jacob's life and rounded up her correspondence for posterity.  If she had not, we black women of the 20th century might not have ever realized the compelling authenticity of Jacob's story.  Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that all of the editions which refer to her work as fictional and her narrative as unreliable are automatically barred from our library and bookstore shelves.