The Power of Resistance: Harriet Jacobs’ Story

This week, we’re going to veer a little from our normal coverage of teaching and doing history and look at a particular story from the past. This past week, I’ve been working on a new DBQ for our Ethnic Studies curriculum, which will be available to partnering schools next school year. For research, I read Harriet Jacob’s famous slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which she wrote as “Linda Brent” knowing the potential repercussions of using her real name given her own personal story.

Harriet Jacobs in 1894 at 81 years old.

Harriet Jacobs’ story is so important for us to understand the lives of the enslaved in 19th century America. Even though I’ve read around her book for years, it was humbling to finally dive into the whole thing. At one point in her autobiography, she writes, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” Her narrative demonstrates just how hard her life was as an enslaved woman.

When she turned 15, her enslaver, Dr. James Norcom (in the book she calls him Dr. Flint) began to sexually harass her and “began to whisper foul words in my ear.” He even built a cottage on nearby land for Jacobs to live on so that he could have his way with her without drawing attention to his wife or the local town. Jacobs, determined to not let this happen, had sexual relations with a local white man and became pregnant. For her, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, then to submit to compulsion.” When her enslaver told her to move to the cottage, she retorted, “I will never go there. In a few months I shall be a mother.” Norcom “stood and looked at me in dumb amazement, and left the house without a word.” 

In a rather unique, but no less empowering way, Jacobs resisted her enslavement and her enslaver. In a culture where enslavers became rich off of human chattel from their own lust, raping their female slaves, Jacobs resisted. While she did struggle with her own moral conscience given her choice, she was determined not to let her enslaver’s greed and lust control her life and the lives of her children (she ended up having two children with the abovementioned man).

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Wikipedia
Jacob’s Narrative, published in 1861.

Jacobs’ story only grows in intensity. She ends up having to hide in her grandmother’s attic for 7 years, hearing and seeing her son and daughter, but unable to speak with them. After those 7 years, she was able to make her escape thanks to a local free black man’s keen awareness. She goes up to New York and is reunited with her daughter in Brooklyn, and then later, her son. Jacob’s story is one of victory. Although her trials were unspeakable, she persisted. She lived a long life in freedom with both of her children, an outcome that never existed for millions who were in bondage on American soil. 

Jacob’s story is powerful and emotional and we are humbled to share her story as a part of one of our DBQs on American history.