As my book club presses on with autobiographies in a chronological fashion, we’ve made our way to the American Civil War. The first of two slave narratives that we are reading is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. Next month we’ll be reading The Life of Frederick Douglass. I won’t recount all the details of Harriet Jacob’s story, but instead, simply tell the two things that impressed me the most about it.
First, I never cease to be astounded by the religious hypocrisy displayed by Christians in the South prior to the Civil War. Slave owners, nearly all of them pious church goers, treated their slaves with abominable cruelty. They beat them, starved them, forced sexual advances upon them, and twisted the Bible to teach them their duty to their masters. Even the best slave owners, the kind ones commended by Harriet Jacobs in her story, refused to manumit their slaves until their own deaths. Some would argue many the events in the Southern slave narratives are gross exaggerations, but even if we discount the majority of these tales, the remainder are sufficient to damn the Southern slave owners twenty times over. In the Civil War, the Southerners may have had the moral high ground where states’ rights are concerned, but the leprous infection of slavery was certainly reason enough for their house to be judged and torn down.
Second, the fortitude which Harriet Jacobs displayed throughout the story was amazing. It seemed beyond the limits of human endurance. After escaping from her master, Harriet hid in a tiny attic above her grandmother’s house for seven years! The space was barely large enough for her to roll over and her limbs began to atrophy painfully. Exposed to the heat of the summer sun and the cold of the winter wind, she was also forced to listen silently while her children walked beneath her, giving no indication of her presence or her love for them. Even after she escaped to the North, Harriet was forced into hiding several times and became a continued victim of fear and discrimination.
Harriet Jacobs’ story is an important part of American history and a primary source well worth reading.