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Archive for Sunday, January 16, 2005

Review: Book traces life of remarkable woman

January 16, 2005

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— There is nothing as delicious as a biography filled with lively characters, layered with detailed descriptions and topped off by dense footnotes. "Harriet Jacobs: A Life," by Jean Fagan Yellin, is one of those remarkable meals.

Yellin rescued Jacobs from obscurity in 1987 with her rerelease of Jacobs's 1861 autobiography, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," by naming the then-unknown author and proving the book was not fiction. In "Harriet Jacobs: A Life," she finishes the story with a graceful narrative of Jacobs the woman.

When Jacobs was 29, she escaped to New York, where abolitionist friends paid for her freedom. She spent several years writing and refining her book but was repeatedly rejected by publishers who were uneasy about her willingness to talk about the sexual politics of slavery, where a master had absolute right to the body of a female slave.

It was a tough book to read then and is just as disturbing today.

Jacobs changed all the names in the book and published it under the pseudonym Linda Brent to protect relatives still held in slavery in Edenton, N.C.

I am haunted by Jacobs and her story. Her autobiography opens: "I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. ... And, though we were slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to (my parents) for safekeeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment."

When she was 15, she was sold to a man who made it clear that he expected her to move to a remote plantation where she would live as his mistress.

Jacobs fought back by becoming the mistress of a white neighbor. Her hope was that her owner would lose interest in her and sell her to the neighbor. She had two children with that man, but her owner would not agree to give her up. She resorted to hiding in a tiny crawl space above her grandmother's dining room for seven years until she could escape.

Yellin expands on that story and follows Jacobs though her wartime life as a teacher of slaves who had crossed Union lines into Alexandria, Va., and later as a director of settlement houses for former slaves in Washington.

Jacobs was in her late 60s when she turned to running boarding houses in Washington. By her death in 1897, Jacobs's contributions to the abolition of slavery had been largely forgotten.

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