December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
by Harriet A. Jacobs; edited and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin; Harvard University Press; 368 pages; $37.50 in hardcover, $9.95 in paperback.
Harriet A. Jacobs was not an ordinary slave girl, and her autobiography is not an ordinary account of the miseries of slavery. She was a slave who triumphed not only by luck or piety or passivity but by skillful planning and effective deceit.
Born in North Carolina around 1813, at eleven Harriet became the property of a three-year-old girl whose father, Dr. Flint, would sexually harass her for the rest of his life. He never raped her or permitted her to be lashed, but from the moment she reached puberty, he bullied, cajoled, threatened, and tried to trick her into becoming his concubine. He was enraged when she fell in love with a free black man, and wouldn’t permit her to marry him. Hoping to make herself less attractive to Dr. Flint, she defiantly became the mistress of a neighboring white man and bore him two children, who by the laws of slavery followed the “conditions of the mother.”
The rest of the story is about Harriet Jacobs’s campaign to save her children and herself from slavery. She spent seven years hiding in a three-foot space above a shed connected to her grandmother’s house. From there, as the editor explains in her excellent introduction, Jacobs “uses her garret cell as a war room from which to spy on her enemy and to wage psychological warfare against him. From her cramped hiding place she manipulates the sale of her children to their father, arranges for her daughter to be taken north, tricks her master into believing that she has left the South, and quite literally directs a performance in which Dr. Flint plays the fool while she watches unseen.”
With the help of Northern abolitionists, Jacobs’s account was first published in 1861. At the time, Lydia Maria Child, an editor and writer, helped her get her book ready for publication. The only major change Child suggested was to move all the “savage cruelties into one chapter” so that “those who shrink from ‘supping upon horrors’” would simply skip that section.
Even for those who have read extensively about the South’s peculiar institution, this autobiography of a slave will not easily be forgotten.