It was not until her grandmother Molly died that Hatty Jacobs at last felt free to write her own history. Like many another woman, Jacobs "could never tell her whole story - could never reveal her troubled sexual history - while her proud, judgmental grandmother lived." But Hatty was not just any woman -- she was a mulatto slave in Edenton, North Carolina, and her Grandmother Molly was an exemplar, having freed herself and her oldest son. When Molly found out that Hatty was involved in a sexual liason, albeit unwillingly, with a white slave-owner, she was unsympathetic and ordered her out of the house. Hatty, a mere teenager at the time, pitted herself against Norcom, the master who had forced himself on her, and began a battle of wits that lasted nearly all her life against him and all his kin. She took on a new lover, Major Sam, a white man of higher status than Norcom, and by him she had two children, Joseph and Louisa.
Yet she knew that her children could never be safe as long as Norcom owned and pursued her, and she attempted an escape, leaving her babies with Molly. Trying to overcome the dangers of flight, her mind weighed down with guilt and sadness about her little ones, left to wait for ship's passage in a snake-infested swamp - these were but the beginnings of her trials. Grandmother rescued her by providing a tiny cell within the walls of her house. There Hatty was immured, in a space about 9 feet by 6, and only 3 feet high, for seven years. She poked holes in the outside wall to observe her children growing up without their mother. She listened in on conversations between her former lovers, and at one point even stepped out of hiding, risking her life, to plead with Major Sam to save her children from being sold off by the amoral, greedy Norcom.
This in itself is sufficient material for a memoir, and Hatty, later freed and living in the north, believed that she had an obligation to write her tale. She was literate and obviously of a strong will, and she recognized that not only slaves and other African Americans might benefit from the story of her survival, but that women of all races should empathize with the cruel circumstances that were inflicted on her at an early age by self-seeking men, men typical of their class and of the times.
Hatty finally fled north and was freed by white supporters. Her immediate reaction was outrage. She had been priced at $300, and bought "like merchandise." She would so much have preferred to wait until emancipation came, perhaps even to flee to a country where slavery didn't exist, than to have gained a great gift in such a humiliating way. But she soon came to appreciate the glories of freedom, just as she had imbibed the luxury of a sunset on shipboard when she finally made her escape from the storeroom at Molly's house.
Accompanied by her daughter, Louisa, who was beautiful but "too black for white men and too white for black men," Harriet Jacobs crusaded for her downtrodden brothers and sisters, working as a volunteer in black hospitals and refugee camps during the Civil War and helping to establish black-run schools afterward. Jean Fagan Yellin, Distinguished Professor Emerita at Pace University, has delved into every detail of this remarkable woman's life and treats the reader to a rare glimpse of pre and post-Civil War American culture, particularly race and class divides. Though Jacobs was a Southerner by birth, she spent most of her life in the teeming cities of the North and once operated a boarding house in the nation's capital. She traveled to England where she tasted the first real, comfortable sense of freedom in a land where slavery was not extant. In later years, she once delivered a meal to some of Norcom's offspring, paradoxically living in poverty and in need of charity, even from someone of the race they had so despised.
One sidebar illuminated by the Jacobs story is her fractured relationship with the burgeoning women's movement. At first feted by the suffragettes and appreciative of their determination to secure rights for her gender, Jacobs later became disillusioned (along with most blacks and a handful of white women) because in order to press for an Equal Rights agenda, the movement "opposed extending the vote to black men and male immigrants while [it was being denied] to women." Trying to convince an intelligent woman like Harriet that black men would, with the vote and the power of the institution of marriage, become no better than her white masters, proved impossible. She celebrated the granting of the vote to black men, and was disgusted by what she saw as racism among the white female intelligentsia.
She did write her life story - Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself - under the pseudonym "Linda," and became a prolific crusading letter writer and noted speaker. She was a peer of such notables as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. But her name and her significant accomplishments did not long survive her death. In the introduction to her book she expressed a prayer that "this imperfect effort" might find God's blessing and benefit "my persecuted people." Yellin's book is one kind of answer to that prayer.