Writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs was born into enslavement in Edenton, North Carolina to parents who were owned by different masters. This narrative is the story of her life as a young, enslaved girl, and the sexual oppression and degradation she suffered.
After the death of her mother at the age of six, Harriet was taken in by her mistress who educated her as one of her own. Upon her mistresses death, Harriet was willed to her niece. It was here where she withstood years of sexual advances from the father of her new mistress. Every free moment she was followed and harassed by her new master at the same time suffering the jealousy and rage of his wife. Because of his favor towards Harriet, she was never beaten or punished.This only increased the wife’s fury against Harriet.
In her narrative, Harriet discusses the nature of the ‘relationship’ that exist between enslaved women and their masters, both coerced and consensual. All were subjected to the masters will, even husbands who were sometimes forced to beat their own wives for not submitting. A frequent punishment was to tie a rope around the man’s body suspended from the ground as a fire was kindled over him cooking a piece of fat back. The hot oil from the back would drip on one’s bare skin.
After repeated refusals of her master’s advances and his jealousy of her other relationships, she was sent to the fields to be broken in as a field hand. Refusing to submit, Harriet ran away to her grandmother’s house. There she remained for the next seven years hiding in attic of a shed to escape capture.
She left Edenton and found freedom in New York. Here she worked as an abolitionist and became a feminist as well. Fellow activists encouraged her to tell her story about the abuses of enslavement, especially concerning women.
Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, NC in 1813. At the age of six her mother died and Harriet, having no one else to care for her, was taken in by her mistress who educated Harriet as one of her own. But upon her mistress’s death Harriet was willed to her niece and forced to withstand years of sexual advances from her new mistress’s father, Dr. Flint, as well as suffering the jealousy and rage of his wife.
Harriet refused to submit to their cruelty and ran away-moving from one hiding place to another until finally she was hidden in a small, dark, almost airless garret beneath the roof of the shed at her grandmother’s house. For seven long years she was confined in this narrow dark space while her children grew up within her hearing, yet she was never able to confide to them that she was there. What bitter sacrifices Harriet Jacobs had to make to escape from enslavement.
No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. … My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there…
At half past twelve I stole softly down stairs. I stopped on the second floor, thinking I heard a noise. I felt my way down into the parlor, and looked out of the window. The night was so intensely dark that I could see nothing. I raised the window very softly and jumped out. Large drops of rain were falling, and the darkness bewildered me. I dropped on my knees, and breathed a short prayer to God for guidance and protection.
I groped my way to the road and rushed towards the town with almost lightning speed. A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small garret, never occupied by any thing but rats and mice. It was a pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles…
The garret was only nine feet long, and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. I hardly expect that the reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul.
Members of my family, now living in New York and Boston, can testify to the truth of what I say. Countless were the nights that I sat late at the little loophole scarcely large enough to give me a glimpse of one twinkling star. There, I heard the patrols and slave-hunters conferring together about the capture of runaways, well knowing how rejoiced they would be to catch me. Season after season, year after year, I peeped at my children’s faces, and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, “Your mother is here.” Sometimes it appeared to me as if ages had rolled away since I entered upon that gloomy, monotonous existence. At times, I was stupefied and listless; at other times I became very impatient to know when these dark years would end, and I should again be allowed to feel the sunshine, and breathe the pure air.
My friend Peter came one evening, and asked to speak with me. “Your day has come” said he. “I have found a chance for you to go to the Free States. You have a fortnight to decide.” …I was going to answer him with a joyful yes, when the thought of my child Benny come to my mind. I told him the temptation was exceedingly strong, but I was terribly afraid of Dr. Flint’s alleged power over my child, and that I could not go and leave him behind. Peter remonstrated earnestly. He said such a good chance might never occur again; that Benny was free, and could be sent to me; and that for the sake of my children’s welfare I ought not to hesitate a moment…I resolved to go.
The anticipation of being a free woman proved almost too much for my weak frame. The excitement stimulated me, and at the same time bewildered me. For the last time I went up to my nook. Its desolate appearance no longer chilled me, for the light of hope had risen in my soul. …As the hour approached for me to leave, I again descended to the storeroom. My grandmother and Benny were there. She took me by the hand, and said, “Let us pray.” We knelt down together, with my child pressed to my heart, and my other arm round the faithful, loving old friend I was about to leave forever. On no other occasion has it ever been my lot to listen to so fervent a supplication for mercy and protection. It thrilled through my heart, and inspired me with trust in God.
Writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs left Edenton for freedom in New York. There she found work as abolitionist and became active in the anti-slavery and feminist movements. Fellow activists encouraged her to tell her story about the abuses of enslavement, especially as it was directed to women.
Voice-over by Margarette Robinson