Is Harriet Jacobs The Black Anne Frank?
Some have compared the trials of former slave Harriet Jacobs to those of Anne Frank. Both deserve their own stories be told.
The answer is “yes, both.” Analogies are like medicines—most have side effects. Historians like using the familiar to access the unfamiliar, yet dislike reducing complex events to one dimension that resonates—and risks implying that fame always predominates.
Anne Frank died seven months after the Nazis raided the “Secret Annex” where she hid for two years. She was fifteen. Harriet Jacobs escaped her oppressors and lived until 84. She became, er, a black Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a female Frederick Douglass. Her searing memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl defied America’s proprieties to expose what happened when men treated women as property.
Born in 1813 into a family of skilled “house slaves” in Edenton, North Carolina, Jacobs at first didn’t feel like a slave. “I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise,” she recalled.
When Jacobs was six her mother died. She started working for her mother’s owner, Margaret Horniblow, who taught Jacobs how to read and write not just sew.
In 1825, Horniblow died, robbing the eleven-year-old house slave of her protector – and her naivete. Willed with her brother Jacob, like furniture, to Horniblow’s three-year-old niece Mary Matilda Norcom, the children now answered to Mary’s tyrannical father. Dr. James Norcom soon taught Jacobs that “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” – especially budding teenagers. Some chronicles call what Jacobs endured “sexual harassment” – that’s like soft-pedaling murder as a “crime.” Norcom was a sexual terrorist.
In fathering at least eleven children, Norcom joined many Southern slaveholders in celebrating Southern womanhood while humiliating their wives. Caught between an “unprincipled master and a jealous mistress,” Jacob felt some sisterhood with the betrayed wife. After all, “the mistress as well as the slave must submit to the indignities and vices imposed on them by their lords of body and soul.” But Norcom’s wife couldn’t reciprocate. She so “pitied herself as a martyr … she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.”
Seeking protection, Jacobs tried marrying a free black carpenter. Her “master” – Norcom — blocked it. Desperate, the 13-year-old Jacobs then started sleeping with a 26-year-old white lawyer and future Congressman, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. In 1829, when she was 16, Jacobs bore Joseph. Louisa Matilda arrived four years later.
Jacobs’ resistance enraged Norcom. Showing how children made slaves vulnerable, Norcom sent Jacobs to work on his son’s plantation in 1835. Terrified that her children would soon follow to be “broke in” as field hands, Jacobs begged Sawyer to intervene. He couldn’t. Instead, she fled. Without her to menace, Norcom would ignore her children. “Whatever slavery might do to me,” she decided, “it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.”
Proving there’s no place like home, Jacobs hid in a crawl space above her grandmother’s storeroom. This “hole” was nine feet long, seven feet wide, but only three feet high at its peak. Crawling with rats and roaches, it was stifling during North Carolina’s endless muggy summers, and freezing during its short, bursts of winter.
It was terrifying too. Jacobs was often steps away from her tormentor, Norcom, who continued searching for her.
Sometimes she hallucinated. Sometimes she disassociated. But one blessing sustained her for six years and eleven months: she could spy on her children through a tiny hole. “Season after season, year after year, I peeped at my children’s faces,” she wrote, “and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, ‘Your mother is here.’”
Jacobs also had an enemy to outwit. She wrote letters about her imagined new life and her grandmother had them smuggled up North, then sent down South. Norcom, predictably, intercepted the letters and assumed Jacobs escaped.
Eventually, Sawyer bought his children from Norcom and the kids moved North. In 1842 Jacobs escaped via the “Maritime Underground Railroad,” by boat, then train. The “last time” she crawled into “my nook,” she wrote: “Its desolate appearance no longer chilled me, for the light of hope had risen in my soul.”
Jacobs became a nanny for the abolitionist writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. The threat of capture loomed, especially after the harsh Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Eventually, Cornelia Willis bought Jacobs’ freedom from Norcom’s daughter. Such was the insanity the South’s “peculiar institution” fostered: white fathers had to buy their own kids while abolitionists paid slaveholders to redeem “runaways.”
Surviving and becoming free were remarkable enough. But urged by another abolitionist, Amy Post, Jacobs started testifying. In 1853, her “Letter from a Fugitive Slave” in the New York Tribune describing the sexual bullying plaguing Southern families. Jacobs wished she had enough “genius and talent” to describe “my own sufferings—I would tell you of wrongs” that mock the “liberty, equal rights and protection” offered “under your stripes and stars. It should be stripes and scars….”
Relieving her terror re-traumatized Jacobs. But she understood that Northerners needed jolting. “Why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north?” she fumed. “Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right?”
In 1861, the abolitionist, proto-feminist, and novelist, Lydia Maria Child, helped publish the memoir, with Jacobs calling herself “Linda Brent.” The Civil War was starting. Jacobs wanted “to convince the people of the Free States, what slavery really is. Only by experience can anyone realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations.” She also challenged American women to fulfill “their duty in the exertion of moral influence on the question of Slavery.”
Uncovering sexual violence risked a backlash. In the preface, Lydia Maria Child admitted that “many will accuse me of indecorum.” After all, the book breeched the “class of delicate subjects…. This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be acquainted with its monstrous features.” Child proclaimed: “I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul that our ears are too delicate to listen to them.”
In the Hollywood version, just as Abraham Lincoln supposedly told Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” he would call Jacobs the little lady who wrote the book that clarified our great war aims. But the book didn’t pop. Lincoln – and Northerners – dithered for years before targeting slavery.
Still, boosted by the absence of white men who were away fighting, this former slave defied the era’s sexism and racism to serve as a nurse and moral leader. Rallying black troops, Jacobs helped redefine African-American American patriotism. “Three years ago,” she proclaimed, “this flag had no significance for you, we could not cherish it as our emblem of freedom. You then had no part in the bloody struggle for your country, your patriotism was spurned; but to-day you are in arms for the freedom of your race and the defense of your country—to-day this flag is significant to you.”
Postwar, Jacobs rejoiced: “Thank God, the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg. There is no more need of hiding places to conceal slave Mothers.” Now she had to find meaning in daily life. As educator, fundraiser, political activist, she helped blacks transition from slavery into citizenship.
Jacobs’ multidimensional life is too big to be crammed into the crawl space. Nevertheless, like Anne Frank’s, Harriet Jacobs’ awful adolescence revealed how far some people will go to degrade others. But Jacobs’ grit, eloquence, and leadership prove how far other people can go to overcome – and flourish.
FOR FURTHER READING
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861.
Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, 2005.
Mary E. Lyons, Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, 2007.