Harriet Jacobs, the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was born in 1813 and died in 1897 in North Carolina. Her parents, Delilah and Elijah, were enslaved by Margaret Horniblow and Andrew Knox. Later, while still an enslaved person, Jacobs worked for Dr. James Norcon, where she eventually managed to liberate herself after years of servitude. Following her release from slavery, she became an abolitionist speaker and authored an autobiography titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jurić). Jacob’s narrative illustrates how African American women were subjected to horrific circumstances and punishments as enslaved people in the early days of slavery. This work is written to study the life and fight against slavery by Harriet Jacobs based on the book Cases from the Life of a Slave.
Harriet Jacobs’ Life and Fight Against Slavery
Jacobs uses the narrative to highlight the extraordinary slavery for women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and brutality. Jacobs was sexually assaulted by her married enslaver, Dr. James Norcom, while she was a young lady. His approaches to Jacobs ranged from aggressive to sexually suggestive. Her master physically and emotionally abused her, and she kept keeping her suffering hidden (Jacobs 90). Her life was ruined by the institution of slavery and its suffocating grip on her. However, after her mother’s and the enslaver’s deaths, she was forced to confront the civil rights activists’ adverse results while living in Dr. Narcom’s home. She endured the severe circumstances of enslavement and was aware of the sexual danger posed by Dr. Narcom. To escape from Dr. Nacom, she decided to get married to an attorney named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. In Jacobs’ mind, marrying this man would, at the very least, provide her and any children she may have with his freedom (Jacobs 85). Relationships with prominent lawyers, wealthy business people, and a former president may have given Heming and Jacob a brief respite from the uncertainties of their circumstances, respectively. It did not, however, grant them or their children’s freedoms. Jacobs had sexual intercourse with a woman with whom they had two children born out of wedlock. She fled into hiding for seven years to avoid her children becoming plantation enslaved people. She hid in a little garret above her grandma’s house while leaving her children in her free grandmother’s care. As her children grew, she could see them from the safety of her home (Jacobs 224). The Norcom family pursued Jacobs, but Harriet resisted their sexually abusive and severe surroundings, refusing to return. Abolitionists helped Jacobs reconnect with her children when she fled to the North in 1842 (Jurić). She spent her spare time writing her memoirs while working as a nanny.
Jacobs fought against the institution of slavery by documenting her experiences in writing and by participating in anti-slavery organizations. Cornelia Willis, her boss, finally helped her escape captivity and set her free. She defied the course of events in her life for the sake of her family. Therefore, it was inevitable that she would demonstrate some subtle acts of resistance. According to Jacobs’ account of her life, the institution of slavery had a negative effect not just on black Americans but also on white Americans living in the South (Jacobs 81). Firstly, as Jacobs narrates in her tale, slavery devastated her and other African families. Families were often separated by enslavers who sold their wives and children (Jacobs 179). Families who resisted captivity were punished, which had the most devastating effect on mothers. Jacobs was forced to abandon her two children to escape from her owner. As a result of slavery, Jacobs felt nothing but hatred and enmity and wanted to rebel against her enslaver; however, there was no protection for enslaved people because there was no law to protect them from being insulted or beaten, or even killed (Jacobs 26). As a result, Jacob and other enslaved people both had negative ideas running through their heads. Jacobs reflects on how she has watched white and enslaved person children play together with pleasure and happiness. However, she realizes that the enslaved child will soon not have moments of fun but rather periods of suffering. Enslaved people are helpless and can only hope for the day when they will no longer be tied like dogs to their masters (Jurić). White enslavers resented the efforts of their slaves to improve themselves via education or skill acquisition. The most plausible explanation for this is that they prefer enslaved people to only be able to know how to obey instructions and not to exist as free persons who can learn.
Slavery created an environment where white men thought they had the right to rule over black people. They believed that because of their higher social rank, they were in a position to do what they liked without fear of repercussions and that they were morally superior to the people whom they oppressed. Enslaved people were deprived of several rights, including the freedom to speak their minds freely and the ability to make their own choices. For example, when Jacobs’ father died, she returned to her masters and expected that she should be permitted to go to her father’s grave the following morning. Still, she was instructed to collect flowers and weave them into festoons while her father’s corpse was far away. She did this while her father’s body was carried a mile away (Jacobs 12). They believed that her father spoilt his kids by making them feel more like humans than they were.
Enslaved people were treated as mere objects by their masters during the time. In addition, the male enslavers who owned the enslaved people took advantage of the women, which resulted in the women being pregnant by men they despised. These enslaved people were subjected to persistently repeated lies, such as the one that said God considers it a sin for enslaved people to disobey their owners’ orders.
Therefore, from Jacobs’ description, it is clear that this thinking led many white men to abuse and exploit their enslaved people. For women like Harriet Jacobs, whose lives were threatened by slavery, hiding for years is the most excellent choice in this culture, where slavery is commonplace. People of the white master class enjoyed the right to essential freedom, while people of color did not even have the chance to grieve the death of their family members. For both black and white people in the South, slavery had physical and psychological implications. The practice of slavery had a detrimental effect on the health of black and white people (Jacobs 81). Slavery had a negative psychological impact, not just on black people but also on white people. Slavery’s emotional and mental toll was just as high as its physical cost. Slaveholders’ living conditions were often appalling as enslaved people were often tortured (Jacobs 98). They were denied access to medical care and had to dwell in squalor.
The high mortality rate of enslaved people may be attributed to their squalid living conditions. Dr. Flint, according to Jacobs, sexually abused and exploited her while serving as her master. According to Jacobs, Dr. Flint’s wife knew of the sexual assault but failed to stop it (Jacobs 54). She adds that he informed her that she was his property and that she had to bow to his will in everything. Slavery degraded everyone involved, from the enslaved people to the masters, as this quote shows. White men in the South, such as Dr. Flint, were free to degrade and destroy the lives of black women without fear of repercussions because of the power imbalance between black and white Americans in that region. Due to the general whims of their owners, Jacobs’ children were taken away from her, causing her much distress and agony of her children.
In conclusion, Harriet Jacobs is one of the few African Americans who fought against the institution of slavery by actively participating in anti-slavery organizations. According to Jacobs’ account of her life, slavery devastated her and other African families. She narrates how enslaved people are helpless, and there is no protection for enslaved people because there is no law to protect them from being insulted, beaten, or killed. Slavery created an environment where white men thought they had the right to rule over black people. The enslaved people were further deprived of several rights, including the freedom to speak their minds freely and the ability to make their own choices. For both black and white people in the South, slavery had physical and psychological implications. For women like Harriet Jacobs, whose lives were threatened by slavery, hiding for years was one of the choices she had for the sake of her family.
Jacobs, Harriet Anne. Incidents in the life of a slave girl: written by herself. North Carolina Collection, 1861.
Jurić, Talia. Slavery in Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Diss. The Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek. Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2019.