Slave Narratives, Then and Now Author David Reynolds talks about the manuscript written by former slave, Harriet Jacobs. Also, Mende Nazer tells her personal story of slavery. As a child, she was abducted from her village in Sudan.
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Slave Narratives, Then and Now

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Slave Narratives, Then and Now

Slave Narratives, Then and Now

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

A conference in New York begins tomorrow to celebrate the life of a woman many have never heard of, but whose legacy is essential to understand who we are now. Harriet Jacobs was born into American slavery in 1813. She escaped 23 years later and went on to tell her own story.

Part of her serialized narrative appeared in the New York Tribune. However, her stories were considered so shocking that publication of the manuscript ceased before her entire story was completed. It wasn't until 1961 that her finished manuscript, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl Written by Herself, was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

We're going to hear from two people today. The first is a scholar who studies her work and the other, a woman who was enslaved in Sudan, who also went on to tell her story. If you have questions about Harriet Jacobs or the legacy of slavery here or Sudan, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

David Reynolds is a distinguished professor of English at Baruch College and the graduate school of the City University of New York. He's also author of a recent biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome, Professor.

Professor DAVID REYNOLDS: Nice to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Professor, tell us who Harriet Jacobs was.

Professor REYNOLDS: Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. For the first 12 years of her life, her experience was fairly good because she had a kind mistress. But then she fell into the hands of a master who sexually harassed her. To the extent - he had fathered 11 children by other slave women and he kept pursuing her and pursuing her and it was just a horrible experience for her.

In defense against him, she had a relationship, an affair, with a kindly, nice, white gentleman who lived nearby. She had two children. This was all kind of in defense against the constant sexual harassment by her master. Ultimately, she had to flee and she had to hide out in a shed, an attic, that was only nine foot long and seven foot wide and three foot high.

And she lived in this black, dark, rat infested and insect infested attic for seven years. And she was in there. And ultimately she fled to the North and she did get to live to tell her story and to become free in the North.

MARTIN: If I may, Professor, I want to read just a little bit from the memoir. And this is about, where she talks about the moral dilemma that she faces. I mean, in not wanting to be basically made a sex slave of this master.

And she says, “Pity me and pardon me, oh virtuous reader. You never knew what it is to be a slave. To be entirely unprotected by law or custom. To have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares and eluding the power of a hated tyrant. You never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps and trembled within hearing of his voice.

“I know I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day. Still, in looking back calmly on the events of my life, I feel that a slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.”

It's really rather remarkable, isn't it?

Professor REYNOLDS: Yeah, that's the passage when she's trying to explain why she had this affair with this other white gentleman, Samuel Treadwell Sawyer, who treated her kindly and so forth. But she wasn't, it's not that she was totally in love with him. And in that passage, she's trying to say hey, you have to put yourself in my circumstance. I was just, I wouldn't normally perhaps have had this affair, but I was using him to kind of protect me against this horrible monster who's pursuing me and who I hate. I detest my master.

And so she was in a very, very painful circumstance there.

MARTIN: Made all the more painful by the fact that she was aware that she could be judged by this, that she would be judged to have been at fault. But let me ask you, professor. What made it possible for her to tell her story? Obviously, you know, there were - how many hundreds of thousands of enslaved, you know, Africans in the United States, and yet we have so few documents that tell their story in their own words. How was she able to do so?

Professor REYNOLDS: Well, unfortunately, more than 85 percent of slaves were not allowed to learn how to read, because reading and knowledge is power. That's power, and the white masters knew that. They didn't want their - but she had one nice mistress who taught her how to read, taught her how to write. When she came north, she approached Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but she was offended, a little bit turned off, by the sexual elements of the story.

So she went to Lydia Maria Child, who was an abolitionist, completely free of racial prejudice. She opened herself, and she became the editor, and she - it's because of Lydia Maria Child that we have Harriet Jacobs's narrative. She's the one who helped to edit it and to bring it to the publisher and get it printed.

MARTIN: Did people believe that this was, indeed, her own story in her own words, or did people actually think it was a novel at the time?

Professor REYNOLDS: Yeah. At the time, people - well, it says Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, but it's by Linda Brent. Her name wasn't Linda Brent. And then on the title page, there's Lydia Maria Child. And so for years and years, people just assumed this was Lydia Maria Child writing, like, a novel - oh yeah, right, by a slave girl. Oh yeah, we know that. And it turned out that Jean Fagan Yellin at Pace University is the one who came along in the 1960s and said now wait a minute. Harriet Jacobs wrote this.

And she went to Rochester Historical Society and she found the papers of this slave woman, Harriet Jacobs, who describes writing this narrative. So you know, as a result of Professor Yellin's heroic research, we now know that it was Harriet Jacobs herself who wrote this incredible narrative.

MARTIN: Why do you think her contemporaries had a hard time believing that she wrote it herself? Was it just because, as you said, the literacy rate was so low, or was it people just didn't want to believe that this actually happened?

Professor REYNOLDS: This - it was published in 1861, just on the verge of the Civil War. African American women were the most oppressed, put down, degraded group of people at that time. People wouldn't even - oh, a book written by an African American woman? No, forget it. You know, this is totally ridiculous. It had be written by Lydia Maria Child, this white author.

People didn't even want to kind of think it was really by, you know, a black woman. Now a few people around Lydia Maria Child knew it was by her, but the larger community kind of refused to accept it, and it got buried, and that was the time of the Civil War and everyone was fighting against each other, and the book got kind of buried.

MARTIN: I'd like to - now I'd like to introduce us to Mende Nazer. She, too, was enslaved, though her story and the story of Harriet Jacobs are 150 years apart. She was enslaved in the Sudan and went on, like Harriet Jacobs, to write about her experience. Her memoir, with Damien Lewis, is called Slave: My True Story. Welcome Mende Nazer. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MENDE NAZER (Author, Slave: My True Story): Oh, I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Why was it important to you to tell your story?

Ms. NAZER: It is very important to me to write the story. It is important and it is difficult, as well, because there is not really so many slaves have the voice to speak out about this experience. So I said if I have the chance to speak about my experience, I will speak because it will help and raise awareness for the people who have no voice to speak out about their suffering. And also, I wrote the book to let people know how the slave people feel today.

MARTIN: And I should say it's Mende Nazer. Forgive me for mispronouncing your name.

And one of the similarities I see between your story and that of Harriet Jacobs is that many people didn't want to believe it. In fact, when your story was first published, I believe it was in London, there were people who said well, this just didn't happen. And that must have been very painful for you.

Ms. NAZER: It is so painful for me. I cannot really change their minds to make them to believe it or not, but that's a fact. It has happened, and it is still happening. So I mean, it's very difficult for people to understand that slavery still exists in this pleasant country. So the slaves still exist, and the slavery is still going on, so I'm the proof of the slave, to talk about the slavery today.

MARTIN: What similarities - or do you see any similarities between your story and that of Harriet Jacobs?

Ms. NAZER: I do see the similarity between her story and my story. And exactly, I feel how Harriet Jacobs must feel about her own story. I read half of the book, and I was crying a lot because I feel how she felt while she was a slave. So the similarities, the cruelties she received from her masters and the way she had been treated as a human being. So there is so much similarity between her story and my own story. So it's just not to be treated as a person and not to be given status as a human being.

MARTIN: Mende, may I ask you, if it's not too painful, how were you finally able to achieve your freedom?

Ms. NAZER: This is really very wise to speak about the whole things about my escape. So there is a cruel people in the world, but also there is a kind people in the world, as well. I've got a lot of support out there to help me to escape. So basically, I escaped while my master was away. They weren't around in London, so I found some people who were really kind. One of them, which is named Louis(ph). He's now a co-writer, who helped me to write the book. So they helped me to escape. I wouldn't escape without them, because I know that if I escaped, there is people out there will help me because of the freedom itself and of the story.

MARTIN: While you were held in captivity, did you ever come to believe that you would not be able to escape, or did you always have it in your mind that you would be able to regain your freedom someday?

Ms. NAZER: It was upside down. Sometimes I felt like one day I will obtain my freedom, and sometimes I feet like I'm never going to have my freedom. But in the last stage, I felt I will gain my freedom. I will be a free person, and I'll see my family, as well.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Professor Reynolds, obviously it's very - Mende Nazer has a very important story for us in reminding us that slavery does still exist today and that it is something to still be mindful of, but help us understand why it's important to talk about Harriet Jacobs as well. What can we learn from her story that we need to talk about today?

Professor REYNOLDS: I think from both Mende and from Harriet Jacobs we can reflect that there are still many, many injustices, gross injustices, that are kind of - even if they're in the newspaper sometimes or whatever, there are too many Americans that are just very complacent. Oh, you know, they wave the American flag, and isn't this great and so forth. Listen, there were nearly four million enslaved Africans in America, in good old patriotic, sunny America, and a lot of them were whipped, they were raped. And it took the death of 620,000 Americans, the Civil War, to get rid of slavery.

And then after slavery, there was reconstruction, but then we had years and years of segregation, and we're still recovering even today from segregation and so forth. There's so much more to be done. People should read Mende's story, they should read Harriet Jacobs's story, and they should become much less complacent about their own lives. They should dedicate themselves to trying to correct social injustice both in America and around the world.

MARTIN: Mende, tell us about how, since you have been able to tell your story, how have people reacted to it?

Ms. NAZER: There is so many different reactions. Some people react really strongly about the story, about what's going on in this country about the slavery, and some people just think it's like a novel, it's not really a true story. So it's different reactions, really. From my understanding, it doesn't matter whether they're going to understand - it doesn't matter the way they understand it, but it's a matter for them, for me to understand that slavery is still going on and they have to do something about it.

MARTIN: Professor Reynolds, it's interesting. There's a through-line here of sort of disbelief about this, and I wonder if it's just something about us as human beings that we just don't want to take in the fact that human beings can treat each other in this way, or is there something about the particular facts of these stories that people find it hard to accept? What do you think?

Professor REYNOLDS: It's very hard to come to terms with social injustice, and even the people that lived back in Harriet Jacobs's time - well, in the South, of course, they thought slavery was the best thing. The Southerners thought that we should go to Africa and enslave all the Africans. Why? So that we can spread Western Christianity and civilization to Africa. So the South felt that way, and even in the North - when Harriet Jacobs came to the North, she found incredible racial prejudice - almost worse racial prejudice in the North than in the South.

So what I'm saying is that even today, we tend to be blinded by our prejudices, by being complacent, by being narrow, by just absorbing ourselves into our nice little boxes and lives and not really thinking about real social problems and trying to address social problems. It's much more comfortable just to kind of lean back - okay, I have a salary, and this and that, and I have my SUV or whatever - to start thinking sharply about social problems and then try to take some action, whatever is in your orbit, whatever it may be, whatever's in your orbit to help to try to correct these larger social problems.

MARTIN: Professor, we're down to our last couple of seconds, so just tell me about the conference and what are you going to talk about?

Professor REYNOLDS: Well, I'm going to talk about Harriet Jacobs and her collaboration with Lydia Maria Child, who was her editor, and how her book takes shape and how Harriet Jacobs fits into her culture. This is a two day conference at Pace University that has some of the leading historians in American history. It also has Mende, and there's going to be a play about Harriet Jacobs. It's going to be a fabulous conference Friday and Saturday at Pace University in New York City.

MARTIN: It seems remarkable that there is yet more to learn about this era in our history. Perhaps as a historian, you don't find it remarkable, but it just seems interesting that we're still learning more about this chapter in our history. You'd think that, you know, it would all have been uncovered by now, but the fact that these texts are still emerging and we're still learning more, it's - I wonder what that means.

Professor REYNOLDS: What it means is that even historians have been a little too complacent. Even the scholars have been too complacent. There's always more, there's always more. We have to keep pushing the limits to understand our past to uncover more. I think there are more Harriet Jacobs out there. I think that we should - and there are more Mendes, whose narratives have to be told, even, you know, enslaved women right now.

MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you, Professor. We have to leave it there. Thank you so much.

Professor REYNOLDS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: David Reynolds is a professor of English at Baruch College and the graduate school of the City University of New York. He's also the author of a recent biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Mende Nazer is the author of Slave: My True Story. They both joined us from our New York bureau.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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