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HIST103 SUNY at Binghamton Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Essay

Normally the reading public in America did not accept a narrative written by a
former slave unless it had the approval or blessing of an established, upstanding
member of the community. It wouldn’t be believed. This in itself suggests
something about race and citizenship in the early American republic.
For this paper, you are to imagine that you are that upstanding member of the
community, usually an abolitionist. Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs have just
been introduced to you and presented you with this manuscript that they would like
to see published. You are to write a 3-4 page double-spaced, stapled paper that will
serve as a preface to either Douglass or Jacob’s narrative. Your preface should
instruct readers why they must pay attention to this narrative. You should outline
what lessons it may impart to Americans about slavery and freedom, and why it
illuminates some immoral aspect of slavery. That injustice might be economic,
political, social or a violation of gender, family, or religious mores of the day. (You
will have read the manuscript beforehand and should call readers’ attention to
certain events or incidents that occur inside, but don’t give too much away.)

INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE
OF A SLAVE GIRL
WRITTEN BY HERSELF
HARRIET JACOBS
WITH
“A
TRUE TALE OF SLAVERY”
BY JOHN
S. JACOBS
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION
AND NOTES BY NELL IRVIN PAINTER
PENGUIN BOOKS
PENGUIN @CLASSICS
INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL
Harriet Ann Brent Jacobs was born in about 1813 in Edenton,
North Carolina. Her brother, John S. Jacobs, was born two
years later. Their parents, Delilah and Elijah Jacobs, were enslaved, but they lived together as a family with Delilah’s mother
until Delilah’s death. Harriet, then six, went to live with her
owner, Margaret Horniblow, who taught her to read and sew.
When Margaret Horniblow died in 1825, Harriet became the
slave to Horniblow’s three-year-old niece, the daughter of Dr.
James Norcom, a prominent citizen, who tried to force the
teenaged Harrier into a sexual relationship with him. In an effort
to fend off his advances, she began a relationship with another
white man, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, and bore him two children, whom Norcom planned to send to a plantation with a reputation for treating its slaves especially brutally. To divert him,
Harriet ran away, eventually hiding in a crawl space in her
grandmother’s house where she remained for almost seven years
before escaping to the North in 1842. She lived and worked in
New York City and Boston until her freedom was purchased in
1852. In the meantime, Sawyer managed to purchase his and
Harrier’s two children as well as her brother John, who went on
to work for the abolitionist cause. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl between 1853 and 1858, finally
publishing it in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. John S.
Jacobs died in 1875. Harriet jacobs died in 1897.
Nell Irvin Painter is Edwards Professor of American History at
Princeton University, where she currently heads the Program in
African-American Studies. She is the author of several books, including Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, and editor of the
Penguin Classics edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE
OF A SLAVE GIRL
WRITTEN BY HERSELF
HARRIET JACOBS
WITH
“A
TRUE TALE OF SLAVERY”
BY JOHN
S. JACOBS
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION
AND NOTES BY NELL IRVIN PAINTER
PENGUIN BOOKS
PENGUIN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014,U.s.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Egliruon Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL,England
Penguin Ireland,25StStephen’sGreen,Dublin 2, Ireland(a divisionof PenguinBooks Ltd)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,
Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)
Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi -110017, India
Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Lrd)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pry) Lrd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank,
Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Lrd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
Incidents in the Life ofa Slave Girl first published in
the United States of America 1861
This edition with an introduction and notes by N ell Irvin Painter
published in Penguin Books 2000
20 19 18
Introduction and notes copyright © Nell Irvin Painter, 2000
All rights reserved
“A True Tale of Slavery” was published serially in
The Leisure Hour, London, 1861.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
[acobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.
Incidents in the life of a slave girl! written by herself, HarrietJacobs.
With A true tale of slavery! by John S. Jacobs ; edited with an
introduction and notes by Nell Irvin Painter.
p. cm.-{Penguin classics)
Includes bibliographical references
ISBN 978-0-14-043795-9
1. Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897. 2. Jacobs, John S.,
1815-1875. 3. Slaves-United States-Biography. 4. Women slavesUnited States-Biography. 1. Painter, Nell Irvin. Il. jacobs, John S.,
1815-1875. True tale of slavery. Ill. Title: True tale of slavery.
IV. Title. V. Series.
E444.J17 A3 2000b
305.5’67’092-dc21
[B]
99-055803
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Stempel Garamond
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition
that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise
circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other
than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including
this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any
other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.
Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage
electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
CONTENTS
h~~~M
~
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL
Preface by the Author
Introduction by the Editor
I Childhood
11 The New Master and Mistress
III The Slaves’ New Year’s Day
IV The Slave Who Dared to Feel
Like a Man
V The Trials of Girlhood
VI The Jealous Mistress
VII The Lover
VIII What Slaves Are Taught to Think
of the North
IX Sketches of Neighboring
Slaveholders
X A Perilous Passage in the
Slave Girl’s Life
XI The New Tie to Life
XII Fear of Insurrection
XIII The Church and Slavery
XIV Another Link to Life
XV Continued Persecutions
v
XXXi
xxxv
1
3
5
7
11
17
19
30
34
41
48
51
59
65
70
76
85
89
CONTENTS
VI
XVI
XVII
XVIII
XIX
XX
XXI
XXII
XXIII
XXIV
XXV
XXVI
XXVII
XXVIII
XXIX
XXX
XXXI
XXXII
XXXIII
XXXIV
XXXV
XXXVI
XXXVII
XXXVIII
XXXIX
XL
XLI
Scenes at the Plantation
The Flight
Months of Peril
The Children Sold
New Perils
The Loophole of Retreat
Christmas Festivities
Still in Prison
The Candidate for Congress
Competition in Cunning
Important Era in My Brother’s Life
New Destination for the Children
Aunt Nancy
Preparations for Escape
Northward Bound
Incidents in Philadelphia
The Meeting of Mother and
Daughter
A Home Found
The Old Enemy Again
Prejudice Against Color
The Hairbreadth Escape
A Visit to England
Renewed Invitations to Go South
The Confession
The Fugitive Slave Law
Free at Last
Appendix
A TRUE TALE OF SLAVERY
I Some Account of My Early Life
II A Further Account of My Family,
and of My New Master
96
106
110
118
123
128
132
135
139
142
148
153
160
166
175
179
184
188
191
195
198
204
207
210
212
218
226
229
231
234
CONTENTS
III My Uncle’s Troubles-My Further
Experience of the Doctor, and Our
Parting
IV My New Master’s Plantation-My
Medical Practice Among the Slaves
-My Sister’s Hiding-Place
V My Master Goes to Washington as
Member of Congress-He Is
Engaged to Be Married-Wedding
Trip to Chicago-Canada-New
York-My Escape from Slavery
VI Sensations of Freedom-SelfEducation-A Whaling VoyageI Meet My Sister, and Hear from
Her About My Friends at Edenton
-The Fugitive Slave Bill
VII Cruel Treatment of Slaves-The
Fugitive Slave Law-Slavery
Opposed to Natural Rights and to
Christianity
Explanatory Notes
vu
238
242
246
250
254
261
INTRODUCTION
HARRIET ]ACOBS’S LINDA: Incidents in the Life of a Slave
Girl, seven years concealed in Slavery, Written by Herself (1861),
the best-known nineteenth-century African-American woman’s
autobiography, makes a marked contribution to American history and letters by having been written, as ]acobs stressed, “by
herself.”: Many other narratives by women who had been enslaved (for example, Sojourner Truth) had been dictated to
amanuenses whose roles diluted the authenticity of the texts.’ ]acobs not only wrote her own book, but as an abolitionist and ardent reader, she knew the literary genres of her time. Describing
an African-American family whose members cleave to one another against great odds, she skillfully plays on her story’s adherence to and departure from the sentimental conventions of
domestic fiction. In so doing, she used its difference to a
woman’s advantage. Her self-consciously gendered and thoroughly feminist narrative criticizes slavery for corrupting the
morals and the families of all it touched, whether rich or poor,
white or black. She lays the groundwork for the analysis of black
womanhood.’
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl makes three important
points convincingly: It shows, first, the myriad traumas owners
and their agents inflicted upon slaves. Bloody whippings and
rapes constituted ground zero of the enslaved condition, but in
addition, slaves were subject to a whole series of soul-murdering
psychological violations: destruction of families, abandonment
of children, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, humiliation, contempt. Jacobs details the physical violence so common in her
Southern world, but she especially stresses the assault on slaves’
psyches. Second, she denounces the figure of the “happy darky.”
As a slave and later as an abolitionist, she was frequently conIX
x
INTRODUCTION
fronted with this favorite American myth, which she knew to be
false. In answer to this proslavery argument, she enumerates the
miseries of the enslaved; in chapter 13 she shows precisely how
Northerners were gulled into believing black people liked being
enslaved.” Third, and most courageously, Jacobs insists that enslaved people-here, black women-cannot be judged by the
same standards as the free. Jacobs expounds the conditions of enslavement that deprived people of autonomy, denying them influence over their own and their children’s destinies. While her
enslaved friends and family took advantage of every possible
loophole” within the fabric of an evil system, working the system
allowed them only a modicum of self-determination. Because
they literally belonged to other people, slaves lacked the power
to protect their morals, their bodily integrity, or their children.
In sum, Jacobs delineates a system in which the enslaved and
their enslavers (aided and abetted by Northern sympathizers)
were totally at odds or, as she says, at war.” As she sees it, there
could be no identity of interest between the two parties to the
peculiar institution, even though lives and bloodlines frequently
intersected. The frequent occurrence of similar names-for example, Margaret Horniblow (Harriet’s first owner) and Molly
Horniblow (Harrier’s grandmother)-may confuse the reader
but attest to these very intersections.
Harriet Ann Brent Jacobs was born in about 1813 in Edenton,
North Carolina.’ Her younger brother and best friend, John S.
Jacobs, was born two years later. Their parents, Delilah and Elijah” Jacobs, were enslaved, but they lived together as a family
with Delilah’s mother, Molly Horniblow. Horniblow, the
daughter of a South Carolina planter who emancipated her during the Revolutionary War and sent her to freedom outside the
United States, had been captured, returned to American territory, and fraudulently reenslaved after her father’s death. The
head chef at the Horniblow Inn in Edenton, Molly Horniblow
managed to earn and save money as a caterer even while enslaved. Her industry and clientele made her well known, well respected, and well connected in Edenton, and even before being
INTRODUCTION
XI
freed again at the age of fifty, she had accrued as much standing
as possible by one who was neither white nor free.
As a slave, Horniblow could not marry, yet her daughter
Delilah and her husband Elijah lived with Molly as a married
couple: Delilah even wore a wedding ring, which she left to her
daughter Harriet. Horniblow’s effective marital status, on the
other hand, remains a mystery, as does the never mentioned existence or identity of her own children’s father. These silences-in
the historical record, in Harriet Jacobs’ s / ncidents in the Life ofa
Slave Girl, and in John S. jacobs’s “A True Tale of Slavery”speak volumes, given Horniblow’s seemingly hypocritical attachment to the feminine ideal of chastity. Her insistence on
premarital sexual purity, a condition which often eluded even
free poor and working-class white women, would wreak havoc
in her enslaved granddaughter’s emotional life.
Neither Harriet nor John recalled much about their mother,
who died when Harriet was about six and John about four years
old, although Harriet later praised Delilah as “noble and womanly” in nature.” Their father, Elijah, the best house carpenter in
the region, hired himself out from his base at home. Both Harriet
and John recalled their father as a man of independent mind,
whose slave status embittered and depressed him. John was convinced that his father died young-in 1826-precisely because he
was enslaved: “My father, who had an intensely acute feeling of
the wrongs of slavery, sank into a state of mental dejection,
which, combined with bodily illness, occasioned his death when
I was eleven years of age.”IO
By dint of their skills, values, connections, and ancestry, the
entire Jacobs family had much in common with Edentori’s elite.
However, their African descent, legal status as slaves, and extreme vulnerability placed them firmly on the wrong side of a
towering color bar. Molly Horniblow and her grandchildren experienced the ambiguities of their allegiances differently. The
grandchildren admired, but could not share, her heartfelt Christian piety. The grandmother counted on the existence of conscience in the slaveowning class, another faith beyond her
grandchildren’s reach. She sought decent treatment through per-
Xl!
INTRODUCTION
sonal entreaty; they both followed the route of permanent escape. Horniblow’s son ]oseph shared her grandchildren’s hatred
of slavery; he ran away twice, the second time intending to leave
the United States for good. Punning on the common term for
whipping, he told his brother that he meant to “get beyond the
reach of the stars and stripes of America.”!’
The Jacobses lived on the left bank of the Chowan River
where it empties into Albemarle Sound. Connected through internal waterways with Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the Chesapeake Bay during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,
Edenton served as an administrative center for its own Chowan
and surrounding counties and as northeastern North Carolina’s
main port. In 1820, the population numbered 1261, of whom 634
were white, 499 enslaved, and 67 free black.’! During Harriet’s
and John’s youth, Edenton was still vibrant enough as a trading
center that the town’s leading families would station members in
the New York area. The TredweIls and Blounts in Brooklyn,
New York, who made the jacobses’ later residence there unsafe,
belonged to Edenton’s merchant families. During the midnineteenth century, Edenton lost importance as the Albemarle
Sound silted up and North Carolina’s economy shifted away
from the heavily slaveholding and agricultural East Coast toward
the diversified farming and industry located in the Piedmont farther inland.
In 1819 and 1820 Edenton rated two visits from President
James Monroe; in 1820 the town offered him a banquet, prepared
by none other than Molly Horniblow, the region’s finest chef, at
the Horniblow Inn, the local elite’s gathering place.
The inn sat on the main street, across an alley from the courthouse. Between the inn, the jail, and the courthouse stood the
whipping post, where slaves were disciplined and blood flowed.
John S. Jacobs recalled seeing “men and women stripped, and
struck from fifteen to one hundred times and more. Some whose
backs were cut to pieces were washed down with strong brine or
brandy …” He described one instrument of torture, the oak
backing paddle, the blade of which was full of small holes that
pulverized the body and left “the flesh like a steak.” He him-
INTRODUCTION
Xlll
self had dressed the back of a woman whose back he “solemnly
declare[d] … had not a piece of skin left on it as wide as my
finger.”!’
The Edenton elite, small and inbred, was closely connected
through ties of ownership and sentiment to the Jacobses and included the heads of the Sawyer, Tredwell, and Norcom families.
Drs. Matthias Sawyer (d. 1835) and James Norcom (1778-1850)
were longtime business and professional partners. An 1808 inventory of the value of their joint practice revealed a net worth
of $8000, half of which consisted of outstanding debts.” The
financial precariousness of medicine, combined with doctors’
ostentatious standard of living, kept them constantly on the
lookout for financial advantage. Both Sawyer and Norcom operated plantations that (usually) contributed to their income and
where Harriet and John had occasion to work. During this same
period, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (1800-1863)15 and John Norcorn (1802-?), attended the Edenton academy together; the
younger Norcom followed in his father’s footsteps by graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree.
Samuel Tredwell Sawyer attended but dropped out of William
and Mary College. With his family connections, neither his limitations as a scholar nor his feckless dandyism impeded his flourishing as a lawyer;”
After her mother’s death in 1819, Harriet went to the home of
her owner, Miss Margaret Horniblow. Harriet Jacobs recalled
Margaret Horniblow as a kind mistress “almost like a mother to
me.”?” During her six years with Margaret Horniblow, Harriet
learned to read, sew, and generally to carry herself as a lady, a
bearing others remarked upon for the rest of her life.
Reflecting the extreme vulnerability of enslaved people to the
fates of those who owned them, Margaret Horniblow’s death in
1825 made Harriet the slave of Horniblow’s sister’s three-yearold daughter, also the daughter of James Norcom, who became
her de facto owner. The following year, Harrier’s father died,
leaving the child with only her grandmother as protector. Molly
Horniblow’s stature and residence in the center of town did pose
a counterweight to Norcorn’s power over his young female
XIV
INTRODUCTION
slave. Harriet realized that both the town’s gossip mill and her
grandmother’s standing offered her limited but tangible protection.
When her own mistress died in 1828, fifty-year-old Molly
Horniblow, too, fell to James Norcom and was put up for sale at
auction. On account of her age and stature, the sight of
Molly Horniblow on the auction block scandalized the good citizens of Edenton, but her sale, entirely legal, went through. According to Incidents, an older white woman bought Molly
Horniblow, emancipated her, and made Molly the owner of her
own older son, Mark Ramsey. John S. jacobs’s

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