The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harriet Jacobs was a pioneer in exposing racial and sexual violence

How a formerly enslaved woman became a tireless crusader, paving the way for generations of activism

Demonstrators protest the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville on Aug. 2, 2020. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)
6 min

Harriet Jacobs, whose memoir was the first book-length autobiography written by a formerly enslaved African American woman, died in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1897. By then, she was in her 80s and had spent her life working to make the United States less hostile for more people. Her landmark book, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” gave a firsthand account of the sexual exploitation that the United States used to build its wealth. It highlighted the brutality of slavery, aiming to inspire more Americans to join the abolitionist cause. But it did more than that. By tackling both racial and sexual violence, Jacobs paved the way for women who are confronting, surviving and alleviating both today. Modern activists and advocates walk down the path she forged when she insisted that American injustice “is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Jacobs published her life story in 1861 and changed the American literary landscape. A book-length account written by a formerly enslaved woman was unprecedented, but Jacobs’s text was remarkable for other reasons: It made a pretty Black girl its virtuous heroine and emphasized her intelligence.

While writing the book, Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent, producing a work that was equal parts biographical accuracy and bold creativity. Originally titled “Linda; Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself,” Jacobs’s signature text was a creative autobiography because it used fictionalized names and the strategies of sentimental literature to hold readers’ attention.

These literary devices are part of the book’s power. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” tapped into Americans’ investment in sentimentality, the belief that “right” feelings inspired “right” action. Sentimental literature — like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published a decade earlier — offered readers opportunities to sympathize with the less fortunate, and their sympathy affirmed their capacity to be a force for good. In particular, it was thought that White women, supposedly more in touch with their feelings, could influence the powerful men in their lives, inspiring social change for the impoverished and oppressed. Perhaps only the Bible was more popular than sentimental literature in that era, especially among educated White women, and like Stowe, Jacobs wanted to enlist those women in the struggle to end slavery.

Jacobs’s recounting of a young girl being sexually preyed upon by her enslaver — and her portrayal of all the ways slavery impeded family life — were meant to move White women (and the men they knew in power) to oppose slavery.

The story begins with the heroine’s “fondly shielded” childhood, though both of her parents are enslaved. Only upon her mother’s death, when Linda is 6 years old, does she learn that she is considered “a piece of merchandise, trusted to [her parents] for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment.” Having been bequeathed to the town doctor’s 5-year-old daughter, Linda begins living and working in the home of James Norcom, named Dr. Flint in the narrative. By age 15, she is fending off his sexual advances. Young Linda believes accepting Flint’s “kind offers” would lead to spiritual and mental devastation.

Besides wanting to avoid individual destruction, Linda has noticed that Flint only profits when he disposes of the women he impregnates because he sells them and their children. The United States built its economy on treating people as chattels, as movable pieces of property. In this context, “chattels” who could become pregnant were valued primarily for bringing even more future profit to their enslavers. To guarantee that procreation meant profit, American legislators — who were all White men — made the rape of Black women a “legitimate use of property.”

Jacobs’s struggle to determine her own sexual fate affected her entire life. She fell in love with a free man of color who wanted to purchase her freedom and marry her. Her enslaver not only refused; he vowed, “if I catch him lurking about my premises, I will shoot him as soon as I would a dog.” Even worse, the 50-year-old doctor planned to build a cottage where Jacobs would be available as his concubine, at a distance from his jealous wife. To thwart these plans, the 15-year-old Jacobs encouraged the attentions of a nearly 30-year-old White man, future Rep. Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (Whig-N.C.). The United States made her body available by default, so she at least wanted to influence how it would happen.

The United States treated enslaved women’s sexual exploitation as a necessary nonevent, and the nation’s matter-of-fact approach to her dehumanization inspired Jacobs to act based on not only desperation but also ingenuity. Most famously, she lived for six years and 11 months in an attic that was walking distance from her tormentor. From that crawl space, she wrote letters to her enslaver that kept him convinced that she was already in the North, where he sometimes traveled to catch her. In 1842, she really did escape the South.

A decade later, she began writing “Incidents” in hopes of shedding light on the horrors of slavery and strengthening the abolitionist cause. She worked a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week housekeeping job at an estate visited by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Longfellow. Composing in secret and at night, she crafted beautiful sentences when her employers and their five children were asleep. There was a literary flair even in private letters to friends as she complained about slow book progress.

The January 1861 publication of “Incidents” came after several rejections and only after a White ally, writer Lydia Maria Child, served as Jacobs’s editor and negotiated contracts on her behalf.

Once the text existed, Jacobs became a traveling bookseller — lacking the publicity support that White authors enjoyed but determined to help those still in bondage. Mere months into her bookselling tour, she ended it to work in contraband camps, directly serving those made destitute by the Civil War. Meanwhile, using the platform she had earned as an author, she wrote newspaper reports about her activism to generate donations and other resources to alleviate the suffering of those in her care. She continued this combination of direct service and advocacy for the rest of her life.

“Incidents” has now been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Chinese and Japanese. It is taught throughout the United States, including to incarcerated women studying memoir.

When Jacobs died in March 1897, she had been an activist and advocate for nearly 40 years after publishing “Incidents.” She worked to make the country of her birth less hostile for more people. Her example lives on in survivors of sexual abuse who have become activists and advocates. Tapping into the determination that helped them survive and thrive as individuals, like Jacobs, they insist upon serving and empowering others.