Jacobs, Harriet

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JACOBS, Harriet

Born Autumn 1813, Edenton, North Carolina; died 7 March 1897, Washington, DC

Wrote under: Linda Brent

Daughter of Deliah Horniblow and Daniel Jacobs; children: Joseph, Louisa Matilda

The brief facts of Harriet Jacobs' life—the date and place of her birth; the names of her parents and children; the year of her death—generate as many questions about the former slave, abolitionist, and author as they answer. Despite scholarly research into her life, it remains unclear how and when her last name became established as Jacobs. Her mother, Deliah, was a slave owned by a tavern keeper named John Horniblow. Jacobs' father was reputed to be a carpenter named Daniel Jacobs, himself a slave owned by a Dr. Andrew Knox. It is unusual Harriet carried the name of her father; a slave was not characteristically given his or her father's last name as paternity was often disputed or disregarded altogether. Her "naming," then, proved as extraordinary as her life, conforming neither to the prevailing convention nor to the convention of "self-naming" common to such black men as Frederick Douglass upon undertaking literary excursions into slave narratives.

Like 1845's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861) utilizes standard abolitionist rhetoric to provide an account of her life as a slave, her efforts to resist the advances of her master, and her eventual achievement of freedom for her children and for herself. Unlike male-authored slave narratives that tend to frame a cause-and-effect relationship between the attainment of literacy and the desire for freedom, Jacobs' work—written almost two decades after its author's escape to the Northern states in 1842—simply documents the chronology of such activities: her first mistress taught the young black girl to read, write, and sew as a matter of practicality. She represents her desire for freedom as stemming from her experiences as a slave woman rather than from an enlightenment gained from an exposure to "book learning."

An attractive, light-skinned black woman who was subjected to the unwanted advances of her owner from the time she was an adolescent, Jacobs presents herself in Incidents as a sexual object as well as a mother, but even more significantly as a protofeminist when she writes: "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women." In the writings of Jacobs we are granted a rare perspective—a woman's perspective—on a condition most commonly presented from the point of view of men. While Jacobs relates her story using the conventions of the sentimental "women's" fiction of the 19th century, she breaks new ground in her candid portrayal of human sexuality and in expressing a personal fortitude, perseverance, and instinct for survival that was a far cry from the feminine ideal of the day. Hers, indeed, is a story of rebellion, not only against her powerlessness at the hands of a white owner, but also as a woman against a patriarchal society that equates a woman's virtue with physical and emotional weakness. Matter of factly, Jacobs recounts her attempts to ward off continuous and unwanted sexual advances, her dispassionate selection of a white lawyer named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer as a proper father for her offspring, and her attempts to procure her two children's freedom as exercises both of her agency and the collective agency of the African American community she was part of.

As black feminist scholars such as Hazel Carby and Valerie Smith have noted, Jacobs' adoption of many of the conventions of popular fiction caused several male literary critics and historians to challenge the authenticity of Incidents as a slave narrative. Fortunately, biographical details about Jacobs and her authorship were verified in 1980 through the research of Jean Fagan Yellin. Prior to the publication of Yellin's discoveries, authorship of Jacobs' narrative had been attributed to "Linda Brent," the first person narrator who claimed the autobiographical Incidents had been "written by herself."

In addition to establishing the authenticity of Jacobs' narrative in her introduction to recent editions of Incidents, Yellin traces the book's complex history—Jacobs juggled work on her narrative with full-time work caring for the children of a white family and supporting the abolitionist cause in the years prior to the Civil War—and details the intricate editorial relations between Jacobs and prominent antislavery activists and writers Amy Post, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass. She also documents Jacobs' years as a fugitive from slavery, her flight to the North in 1842 and her settlement in Rochester, New York, where she was active in abolitionist politics. After the publication of Incidents in 1861, she and her daughter, Louisa Matilda, participated in Civil War relief efforts, bringing much needed supplies to soldiers stationed in Alexandria, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Savannah, Georgia, and even Edenton, until 1868. Several years after the war she moved to her daughter's home in Washington, D.C., dying there in 1897 at the age of 84.

Other Works:

"Letter from a Fugitive Slave," New York Tribune (21 Jun. 1853). The Deeper Wrong (British edition of Incidents, edited by Lydia Maria Child, 1862).

Letters from Harriet Jacobs to Amy Post are in the Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers collection at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.


Andrews, W. L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (1988). Baker, H., Blues Ideology and Afro-American Literature (1984). Blassingame, J., The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979). Braxton, J., Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (1993). Carby, H., Reconstructing Womanhood (1987). Davis, A., Women, Race, and Class (1981). Johnson, Y., The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker (1995). Smith, V., Self-Discovery and Authenticity in Afro-American Narrative (1987). American Literature (Nov. 1981).

Reference works:

FC (1990). Feminist Writers (1996).



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