Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Her story was truly remarkable: her childhood too short, too tragic; her escape, daring and selfless.

Yet the reaction of my classes in past years was not unlike the reaction of her original Northern audience: an incomplete appreciation at best, dismissal and apathy at worst.  

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina.  Though her early childhood had been shielded due to the status enjoyed by her parents and grandmother (comparatively high status for slaves, anyway), both of her parents died within a relatively short span of time when she was only six, and she ultimately wound up being given to a young girl.  Her mistress' father, Dr. James Norcom, began to sexually harass Jacobs from the time she entered puberty.  Beauty, said Jacobs, was a terrible curse for a slave girl.  To avoid Norcom's advances, Jacobs opted instead to get pregnant by another white man in the community.

Artists' rendering of Jacobs' hideout
Jacobs recounts her escape from Norcom's home, but perhaps the most amazing feature of her escape is her sacrificial love for her children.  Because her children were slaves in the possession of the Norcom family, Jacobs chose not to run away to the North.  Instead, she stayed in an attic crawlspace in her grandmother's house, a garret measuring 9 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 3 feet tall at the highest point.  From this crawlspace, she watched her children grow up through the knots in the boards.  All told, she remained in this crawlspace for seven whole years, emerging only occasionally, and only revealing her presence to her children near the end of that time.  She spent her first decade of freedom crouched in a space so cramped that it caused her muscles to atrophy and her health to suffer, all for the sake of ensuring her children's safety.  

The latter portion of the book is filled with Jacobs' impressions of the North, most notably her distaste for the racism suffered by even free blacks, and the overall miserable condition of the working poor.  In the end, a friend purchases Jacobs' freedom.

This book was published in 1861, but dismissed as too sophisticated to be authentic.  It was widely believed that a white abolitionist women had written the book, that no black woman could have possibly written a narrative so eloquent and compelling.  It was not a suspicion lacking precedent--"Uncle Tom's Cabin" had been written by a white abolitionist woman.  But then, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" hadn't claimed to be an autobiographical slave narrative, either.

So, "Incidents" gathered dust for over a century until a historian in the 1970s took it upon herself to prove Jacobs' authorship and the authenticity of the story.  Census records, newspapers, letters and other documents confirmed that the content was true and that Jacobs was highly literate and fully capable of writing a book.  

Harriet Jacobs
Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the start of this post, in the past, my students tended to react much as Jacobs' earliest readers had: dismissive and unimpressed.  My suspicion was that the reality of the narrative had been lost--that this, to them, was as real as "Lord of the Flies".  This year, I made a point of stressing the reality and even the controversy over the authorship from the get-go.  I had the students look up photos of Harriet Jacobs and Dr. James Norcom to attach faces to the people in the book.

Dr. James Norcom
The other significant change that I made this year was the decision to have daily book discussions.  I divided the reading up so that students would need to read approximately 15 pages per night.  I assigned pairs of students to be the discussion leaders for each day.  I told the students that they were starting off with 200 participation points and that they would lose points if they disengaged from the discussion: they did not necessarily need to speak up and offer contributions, but had to actively listen to the discussion.  I provided a short list of daily discussion questions, calling for general reactions, points needing clarification, as well as questions related to the themes of agency and audience awareness.  

Overall, the discussions were good.  This Humanities class tends to be rather quiet, but many students who do not ordinarily contribute seemed to find their voices during these book discussions.  There are certainly things I will change for when I do this unit with my standalone English class in January (tailoring discussion questions more specifically to each chapter; reviewing good group discussion norms; resisting the temptation to get involved in the discussion more often).  And, of course I am a realist: I know not every student had read the assigned chapters for each day.  Very likely, some students got by reading chapter summaries online.  This said, there were enough students with their books open referring to specific quotes and page numbers that I feel confident that there was a higher level of engagement than in previous years.  What's more, the students were interacting with Harriet Jacobs in a way I'd never seen before, admiring her, sympathizing with her, questioning her thought process, and wondering what they themselves would do in her situation.  Harriet Jacobs was a real person whose words and actions are worth responding to as fact, not a fictional character whose words and actions were the creative offspring of an imaginative author.  I hope the students will remember Jacobs as they continue to consider what true Biblical agency looks like... particularly as we hold her very real selflessness up and against the extreme selfishness of Kate Chopin's fictional heroines in our readings next week.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is in the public domain.  If you want, you can read the book here:
Or, listen to a free audio recording here:

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