Remembering for the First Time

Review of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (Amazon Classics).

“Amnesia,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, “is the [white] American superpower.” The only way to protect white American innocence when it comes to our history of enslavement is to forget the abuse, terror and murder of enslavement. Moreover, Coates says, there can be no dehumanizing unless we forget that the other is human. And there can be no repentance without remembering—even, as Coates says, if we are remembering for the first time.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was not part of any syllabus during my undergraduate training as an historian. Along with dozens of other important works, it was omitted as a way for us to forget and to maintain our white innocence. I am doing what I can to remedy the oversight and shed the false flesh of that innocence. Harriet Jacobs’ book is another steppingstone on that path.

“I was born a slave,” Harriet Jacobs writes “but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away.” It was then that Jacobs’ enslaved mother died. A few years later she passed from the hands of a relatively benign and even caring mistress into the perverted possession of her decades-long slaveholder and nemesis, Dr. Flint (a pseudonym in the book).

Jacobs published the book in 1861 with the editorial assistance of L. Maria Child. The book helped to form the genre of the slave narrative at least as much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In fact, Jacobs had proposed to Harriet Beecher Stowe that Stowe might write Jacobs’ story, but Stowe declined the opportunity.

Harriet Jacobs was born into enslavement in North Carolina in 1813. Her first slaveholder taught Jacobs to read and write, a gift to us all. As she approached adulthood, her slaveholder (Dr. Flint) sought almost constantly to have sexual relations with her, but she was able to escape that abuse through clever and courageous strategies. She developed a relationship with a married white man in the neighborhood and had two children with him. Enslaved children “followed the condition of the mother,” as the law in the south stated, and they too were enslaved by Dr. Flint.

When Dr. Flint threatened to sell her children, Jacobs escaped and hid in a tiny crawlspace under the roof of her grandmother’s house. After staying there for seven years, spending much of her time reading the Bible and also newspapers, she finally managed to escape to New York in 1842. She was not finally and fully free of Flint’s threats until his death some years later. Not only did Jacobs write, but she became active in the northern abolitionist cause, as did her son.

This is an autobiography, an oral history, and an exercise in phenomenology. It is the tidbits as much as the tale that tantalize. Her observations regarding the enslavement system and enslavers are profound. “These God-breathing machines,” she wrote of the enslaved, “are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (page 8). The enslaved were expendable, disposable, used and abused at the whim and convenience of the enslavers.

On one hand, Jacobs testifies to the profound intimacy of the slaveholder/enslaved dyad. I refrain from calling it a “relationship,” because that word can carry more freight than appropriate here. There was no relationship between Jacobs and Dr. Flint except that of abuser and abused, perpetrator and victim, oppressor and oppressed, captor and captive. Dr. Flint always sought to portray the connection as one of deep emotional import. But the only emotion for Jacobs, ultimately, was a mixture of disgust and pity. The intimacy was indeed sexual, violent, emotional, familial, and mundane. But it was no relationship. And no one dared call it was it really was.

“The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition,” Jacobs wrote. “My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed!” she declares, “They knew too well the terrible consequences” (page 42).

I took special notice of the roles theology and the Church played in Jacobs’ story and in the enslavement system. She included a chapter on “The Church and Slavery.” She includes a brief history. “After the alarm caused by Nat Turner’s insurrection had subsided, the slaveholders came to the conclusion,” Jacobs notes, “that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters” (page 85). She was aware of the “sin of Canaan” argument used to justify the enslavement of Africans by whites. The enslavers “seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves,” she observed. “What a libel upon the heavenly Father, who ‘made of one blood all nations of men!’” We can see the dueling theologies here as the “one blood” argument from the Book of Acts appears in the text.

And that one blood is no mere metaphor. “And then who are Africans?” she asks, incredulous. “Who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves?” (page 55). If most enslavers were as active in reproduction as was Dr. Flint (and they were), any argument from “blood” was a vicious fiction. This travesty extended into southern parsonages. “There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south,” Jacobs notes. “If a man goes to the communion table, and pays money into the treasury of the church, no matter if it be the price of blood, he is called religious. If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismiss him, if she is a white woman; but if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd” (pages 92-93).

This story is a record of the lives and actions of quite ordinary people. Both those who enforced the enslavement, torture, abuse, imprisonment, and murder of black people and those who acted to resist and disrupt that system were unremarkable in their time. None of the ordinary and modestly decent people ever considered the overthrow of the American system of slaveholding. But they could be instrumental in freeing a few from its power. And a few decent white folks make their appearances in the story to facilitate her survival and escape.

Even Dr. Flint was ordinary in his performance as a slaveholder. He was more cruel than some and less cruel than others. He was obsessed with possession—not only of Jacobs’ body, in every way, but of her psyche. He failed on both counts and died in frustration. This obsession was about power. No amount of money could deter him from pursuing Jacobs body and soul. His dogged pursuit revealed his own fragility and the absolute terror of what Isabel Wilkerson calls the “dominant caste,” the terror that in fact the “bottom caste” is not inferior after all.

Jacobs offers sly and searing descriptions of her so-called betters. “Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders,” she writes, “and I like one class of the venomous creatures as little as I do the other.” (page 218). Yet, she has enough compassion to observe the disfiguring impact of the enslavement system on the slaveholders themselves. “I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks,” she writes. “It makes white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched” page 65). She was astonished that slaveholders were oblivious to the damage. “Yet few slaveholders seem to be aware of the widespread moral ruin occasioned by this wicked system,” she concludes. “Their talk is of blighted cotton crops—not of the blight on their children’s souls” (page 65).

This is a story of Harriet Jacobs’ lifelong and dogged determination—perhaps another kind of obsession—to be free. I found myself in agony with her as she spent seven years hiding and being hidden, being secreted and keeping secrets, in an attic space barely larger than the inside of a coffin. Incidents is a record of those who chose persistence over surrender resistance over despair, action over resignation. It is a story of people who created meaning on the scaffolding of uncertainty and left a testimony that fills me with admiration and shame in equal measure.

It is a story that helps put some truth into whatever “Truth and Reconciliation” process we may one day pursue to escape our cultural bondage to white supremacy. I regret that it has taken me so long to get to this story. Ignorance may be bliss at the expense of others, but it confers no innocence. I commend Jacobs’ book to your reading if, like me, you have not yet discovered it.

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