Sunday, March 17, 2013

10: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Harriet Jacobs

"Her story, as written by herself, cannot fail to interest the reader. It is a sad illustration of the condition of this country, which boasts of its civilization, while it sanctions laws and customs which make the experiences of the present more strange than any fictions of the past." - Amy Post in the Appendix of the book

"When summer came, the old feeling of insecurity haunted me. It was necessary for me to take little Mary out daily, for exercise and fresh air, and the city was swarming with Southerners, some of whom might recognize me. Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders, and I like one class of the venomous creatures as little as i do the other. What a comfort it is, to be free to say so!" - Harriet Jacobs

"The teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State" - North Carolina's Session Laws for 1830-1831

I have never been more ashamed of my country and my education in my life than I was while reading this book. 

I was raised by a Southern mom with a Southern grama - they left the South in the mid 1970s and have each only been back once or twice. I was educated here in Las Vegas, and in spite of taking all Honors and AP classes, my social studies knowledge is incredibly lacking (I was a senior in high school when I found out the Gulf War was not in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the only gulf I had heard of and it had clearly been kind of brushed over. I will never forget the look on the face of the history geek who heard me make this revelation and was kind enough to clarify some of my major misconceptions). So, by the time I was an adult, when my mom and grama would say things like, "Slaves were valuable property, and were mostly treated pretty well," I had an inkling that MAYBE that wasn't right, but not enough of an education to be able to argue.

My undergraduate degree required that I take early American Lit where my old-skool professor had us read not a single slave narrative, and I was only allowed to take one 'minority' lit class (either gender, American Indian, Mexican American, early African American, modern African American, or Asian) - and I picked modern African-American lit. Last summer I spent a lot of time working with letters from the less famous Mary Carpenter (I really need to make her a wiki page) to Frederick Douglass....but my transcription and research was time consuming and didn't require me to read Narrative of the Life of FD, so...that is how I ended up being a 26 year old who has never read a slave narrative. I am not proud of it, but I think my education can take a large portion of the blame. 

With that said, shame on the American school system that almost guarantees students will read Anne Frank - who spent two years in hiding with two families in a large space - while I bet almost no one reads HJ - who spent seven years in hiding in a garret that "was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air...The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed." This is our own American history, and as a high school student, Education undergrad student, English graduate student, and teacher (who has taught American literature!) I knew almost nothing of it.

The book itself is an incredibly quick read; it is written in a very straightforward and accessible manner with just enough literary flourishes to keep it interesting. The  chronological narrative is interrupted by some chapters grouped by theme (such as "What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North") which serves to give you the entirety of Harriet Jacobs' early life as well as give an overview of the culture and society of the South. It is graphic in making the violence clear, but not sensationalist, exploitative, or hyperbolic.
 I cried several times during my reading. It is also uplifting at times when HJ gets something, anything good in her life, or kindness from someone, or just a spiritual boost. HJ often describes herself as being a very lighthearted person, and while she doesn't maintain her youthful buoyancy, it is impressive that she is almost completely a kind soul.

The most interesting feature is how the letter from the editor and the letter from HJ both directly address a female/woman audience, and the book frequently addresses the reader, asking for our sympathy, our understanding, our action to end the wrongs of slavery. The people who end up providing the most help to HJ are female - both black and white - and I wonder what that says about society, or at least her experience in society, that she could frequently rely upon these women.

If you have not read this book, especially if you are American, I would strongly urge you to do so. 

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