Professor Sheds Light on Harriet Jacobs' Path to Freedom

Harriet Jacobs' personal journey from slavery to freedom was detailed in her 1861 memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jean Fagan Yellin, a professor at Pace University, studied the life of Jacobs. Yellin discusses Jacobs' life after being freed and why her writings sometimes trigger debate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: the world the slaves made in song.

But first, we're going to continue our series on slavery with the remarkable story of a woman whose journey from slavery to freedom was so incredible, many people assumed it was fiction. But it was true.

Her name was Harriet Jacobs, and her memoir, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," was published in 1861. For decades, it was believed to have been written by a white abolitionist until the researcher, Professor Jean Fagan Yellin of Pace University, verified the truth. Professor Yellin joins us now from her home in Sarasota, Florida.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Professor JEAN FAGAN YELLIN (English, Pace University; Author, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"): It's lovely to be here.

MARTIN: Who was Harriet Jacobs?

Prof. YELLIN: She was my hero. That's for sure. She was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813, a very cherished child by her family. She didn't even know she was a slave until she was six. Because both of her parents died and her kind mistress died, she was sent into the home of a 3-year-old child to whom she was willed. And that put her under - in the power of the father of the 3-year-old child, who was an old lecher. And from the time she was 12, he simply made her life miserable.

And in order to escape the real certainty that she would end up in concubinage, she involved herself with a very prestigious young white man, a man with more prestige than her master, had two children by him - really wanted to be sure that the children were freed, she kept asking their father to free them. He kept saying he would free them. Nothing happened. Eventually, she figured out a very strange tactic, that she thought if she ran away, that her master would not want to be bothered searching for her or paying for the upraising of the children, and that therefore he would be willing to sell her and her children to their father. So she ran.

MARTIN: And where did she go?

Prof. YELLIN: That's exactly the question. She had nowhere to go. We know that she hid in people's houses. We know that she hid in a swamp. Eventually, in a very unlikely hiding place, she hid in a sort of attic room over her grandmother's porch. And what's even more amazing is that it was a very small space. It was about, I think, four feet by nine feet by three feet. She couldn't stand up in this space. She hid there for almost seven years. When she wrote this later, nobody believed it, because - okay seven weeks, seven months, but seven years didn't sound reasonable. But I was able to document that that's actually what happened.

MARTIN: Let me just tie a bow on that story. She eventually escaped to the North.

Prof. YELLIN: Yes.

MARTIN: There, she managed to reunite not only with her brother, who was also a fugitive slave, but also both of her children. This is an amazing story.

Prof. YELLIN: And it's an amazing family, because not only was her brother an activist to the anti-slavery movement, so was her daughter, when her daughter grew up.

MARTIN: Why is this amazing story not a bigger part of popular history? It's not nearly as well-known as, say, the narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass or the story of Harriet Tubman.

Prof. YELLIN: Well, she's a woman, and so it's less likely that her story would be known than that of a man who has - is more part of the popular general culture. And we know that Harriet Tubman, of course, was the Moses of her people. And we know that Sojourner Truth was this heroic black woman. Neither of them was literate, and neither of them could write her own story. I think -I don't know. Does it seam sensible to think that the American public could accept an amazing black woman here and there as long as she didn't seem very much like them? As long as she wasn't literate? As long as her speech was not standard speech? As long as she didn't appear like they did? As long as she wasn't light-skinned as Harriet Jacobs was. I don't know. Does that sound sensible?

MARTIN: It sounds certainly plausible. Well, how was it that Harriet Jacobs was literate and was able to write so well?

Prof. YELLIN: Her mother died when she was six, and she was taken in by the invalid, single, late teenage daughter of her mistress. And the girl really had not much of a life. And there was this bright little 6-year-old kid. And so her mistress taught her to read and to sew. Those were two wonderful skills for her, because reading enabled her, really, to free herself and then write a book. Sewing enabled her to support herself and her children later in life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Professor Jean Fagan Yellin about Harriet Jacobs, the author of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," a memoir published in 1861.

How old was she when she wrote this?

Prof. YELLIN: In her 40s. She wrote it when she was sort of a nurse maid - a nanny, actually, in the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis. It's funny. Willis planned this beautiful home with a beautiful study overlooking the Hudson River so he could write wonderful books. And she was up in the garret in the servant's quarters, writing a wonderful book at night that nobody knew about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did they - did her employers help her get it published?

Prof. YELLIN: No. Ultimately, two abolitionists - one black, one white - Lydia Maria Child and William C. Nell got to the sort of abolitionist establishment of William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonians in Boston. And the Garrisonians had money and connections with publishers. And Lydia Child read it, loved it, edited it for her and helped her publish.

MARTIN: And Lydia Maria Child was eventually believed to have been the author, incorrectly.

Prof. YELLIN: Actually, her name is on the title page. But that wasn't because she was trying to take Jacobs' book away from her. It was because Jacobs wrote pseudonymously, and her name couldn't be on the title.

MARTIN: Why? Why did she write under a pseudonym? In fact, that raises a very interesting question. One of the things that's interesting about Harriet is the sense of shame that she carried almost throughout her life about her - how would you describe it? Her exposure to…

Prof. YELLIN: History?

MARTIN: Yeah, her personal history. Do you think that was part of it? Or is it that she just didn't, as an African-American woman, as a formerly enslaved American, just didn't have the means to tell her own story publicly?

Prof. YELLIN: I think she wrote under a pseudonym because in order to tell this difficult story, she really couldn't write as Harriet. She had to, I think, assume a literary persona named Linda. And Linda could write it. I think it was too difficult for her to revisit those years in slavery, the oppression she felt, the years in hiding, all the terrible struggle. This was not fun to write this book. She says so at the end, it's been, you know, dark clouds over her.

I think, when I grew up in the Middle West many years ago, the idea of being an unwed mother was totally shameful and totally to be hidden. I grew up in a small town. I think that a century before that, it would have been almost impossible for an American woman to acknowledge that she had two children out of wedlock, even though there was no legal way for a slave to marry. Still, to say that she had children and wasn't a legal wife was a shameful thing. And I think that Harriet Jacobs was 19th century woman and felt that.

But I also think Harriet Jacobs was a very smart woman who was authoring her autobiography, and that she probably could figure out that her audience of women would be very shocked by that. And that she could share in their concern on the printed page. She is a skillful writer. And we'll never know how much of this was out of her heart. In terms of the shame, I'm sure some was, because it reads that they were. But some of it may have been out of awareness of the expectations of her audience.

MARTIN: Well, what can we draw about her experience of slavery? What does her narrative tell us about how women survive slavery and how their experiences were perhaps different from those of men?

Prof. YELLIN: The male slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass, mention -always mention the sexual abuse of women in slavery. But that's not the story they're telling. And that's sort of in the margins of their story. It's the center of her story. And so a first-person narrative of what it was like to be harassed by a man three times her age who was her owner, who told her repeatedly that, both legally and morally, she must do every single thing he said she must do. She must obey him.

To tell the story of how she fought against that, how she came to a sense of selfhood, how she was able then to translate that into action and free herself, how she was then able to translate that and articulate it - it's a very moving text.

MARTIN: What have you also discovered by sifting through the letters? They also, I think, have discovered letters from the Jacobs family. Are there any other insights you've gleamed from those in the years since you initially started to work?

Prof. YELLIN: The letters are great. The letters start after she's in the North. And she's writing to a Quaker friend in Rochester, and she's depressed. And the Quaker friend says, you know, you really should write your story. It would help the movement. And she says, oh, no, no, no. I can't. She writes a letter, I can't do that. I'm not a writer. It's - I can't tell that story. If my life were, you know, not shameful, maybe I could.

And then, the next thing you know, she really is thinking about writing. She writes a couple of anonymous letters to the newspapers about slave issues, and then she starts writing. It's - her transformation is of great interest.

MARTIN: And what was her life post-slavery?

Prof. YELLIN: I wrote a whole biography, because like all slave narratives, she tells her story from slavery to freedom. But what she did with her freedom, Michel, was really incredible. She wanted to help the anti-slavery movement.

The Civil War began three months after she published her book. She might have gone on tour like other abolitionist lecturers. But obviously, in spring of 1861, that was not a move to make. Instead, she went back South.

She's the only person I know - although I'm sure there were others - a slave woman who went out of slavery and went back South to work with the freed people, to counsel them, to establish health care units, to raise money for them in the North and then take it back South. And what thrills me most is to establish a school for the freed people. They called it The Harriet Jacobs School.

A lot of the letters that are wonderful are about her life in the South during the last part of the Civil War, and the very beginnings of Reconstruction. The letters are so good, actually, that we're publishing a two-volume edition in the fall with University of North Carolina Press. And there'll be Jacobs' letters, her daughters' letters, her brothers' letters of - that people sent to them, and then what people wrote about them, because they were really a phenomenon, that family.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from Harriet Jacobs's story?

Prof. YELLIN: I've thought a lot about that. To me, what's most important is that she took hold of her life and she had self-respect and a sense of selfhood, and that she thought she could control her life even within limits. And she thought she could sort of help change the world. And she did.

Often, we feel powerless - certainly, pregnant 16-year-old girls seem to feel pretty powerless. And to think that she accomplished that is, to me, quite amazing. She ends up a completely self-respecting woman, not just respected by others. See, I think that's very important.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think that people will come to - a wider public will come to appreciate this story and all that it tells us.

Prof. YELLIN: I just learned this week that there's a theatrical company in the - Chicago that seems to be putting on a dramatic version, the Steppenwolf Company. I just read it in the papers. So I think various creative people -some artists have used her as a subject. Some poets have used her as a subject. I think as her story is known - it's such an appealing story, that this is will happen.

MARTIN: Professor Jean Fagan Yellin is professor emerita of Pace University. She's also the author of "Harriet Jacobs: A Life." She joined us from her home in Sarasota, Florida. Professor Yellin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. YELLIN: It's a joy.

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