Narrative gives sketch of woman's life as a slave

February 23, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

SO HOW did Claudia Slate, a white associate professor of English at Florida Southern College, get interested in Harriet Jacobs, a 19th-century North Carolina black woman?

"My interest in African-American studies started in my childhood," Slate said. Her father was a correspondent for The New York Times who covered the civil rights movement.

His journeys took him to Birmingham, Ala. - where public safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor unleashed police dogs on black demonstrators - and to St. Augustine, Fla., the scene of a bloody race riot in 1964.

"I kind of came across Jacobs," Slate said. "Her story is as compelling as Frederick Douglass', if not more so."

Is Slate guilty of feminist overkill, or is Jacobs' tale on a par with Douglass' biography? All Marylanders (I hope) know of Douglass. He is arguably our state's greatest hero.

Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass worked for a while, as a slave, in Baltimore. It was from here that he escaped north in 1838, disguised as a sailor. He went on to become an abolitionist, newspaper editor, orator, diplomat and adviser to presidents.

Jacobs was born in North Carolina about five years before Douglass, according to some biographers. Her ordeal is not just that of a slave, but of a woman who, she said in her autobiography, faced physical and sexual abuse from her owner, Dr. James Norcum, in her early teens.

She escaped and hid in her grandmother's house. Jacobs' grandmother was a free black woman. For seven years, Jacobs hid in a space under a front porch roof of the house. On occasion, she could see her son and daughter playing.

Jacobs fled north by boat in 1842. Eventually she moved to Rochester, N.Y., where she worked on Douglass' North Star newspaper. During the Civil War, Jacobs and her daughter moved to Alexandria, Va., and helped fugitive slaves and founded the Jacobs Free School, which trained teachers for the freedmen.

Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which was published under a pseudonym in 1861. It is perhaps Jacobs' recounting of the sexual abuse slave women faced that led to her autobiography being kept on the down-low for decades.

"The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition," Jacobs wrote.

"My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves allude to it, except in whispers among themselves?

No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences. ... Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as pigs on the plantation."

Not exactly the idyllic, almost puritan depiction of slavery we get in the "Massa Rhett hankers after Miss Scarlett" school of slavery history bestowed on us in Gone With The Wind. Sexual exploitation of slave women? Miscegenation? Let's pretend it never happened, if we can, or ignore it if we can't.

Slate doesn't feel that way, however. On April 4 and April 5, Slate and other scholars will hold the first Harriet Jacobs Symposium in Edenton, N.C., the site of Jacobs' travails.

"It's a very small-scale symposium," Slate said, and that's perhaps fitting, given Edenton's size. Slate called it "off the beaten path," a tiny but nonetheless charming Southern hamlet.

"I was just enamored with the town," Slate said after a visit. "The antebellum homes have been preserved." Though Edenton is "still segregated to a large degree," according to Slate, town residents formed a biracial committee to support the symposium.

Six scholars will give presentations at the symposium. One of them, Jacobs scholar Jean Fagan Yellin, professor emerita of English at Pace University, will give the keynote address.

Yellin will also be on hand to debate any Jacobs debunkers who may show up. And debunkers there are, as you might expect, autobiographies being heavy on the auto and light on the bio.

"Yes, there have been naysayers," Slate conceded.

"Until Yellin authenticated Jacobs' account in 1987," Slate continued, "there was speculation" about whether Jacobs' story was believable. Some critics felt Jacobs' story wasn't even her own but had been cooked up by abolitionists. But Yellin, Slate said, found letters and other documents that give credence to Jacobs' story.

For naysayers and supporters alike, the Harriet Jacobs Symposium should make for an interesting two early spring days in a quiet North Carolina town.

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