Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina and escaped to the North in 1842. In 1861, this book, recounting her experiences in slavery and eventual escape was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent (and, as Linda is the name she uses in the memoir, I’ll use that name in the review).
Linda’s situation in slavery was initially somewhat easier than what other slaves experienced. Her family is given a fair amount of freedom of movement, and she even learns to read. Her grandmother is able to work and earn her own money and eventually buy her own freedom.
Eventually, however, Linda’s kinder mistress dies, and Linda is bequeathed to the young daughter of a relative. The father of the family, Dr. Flint, starts pursuing Linda, who is absolutely horrified at the prospect of sex with a married man she does not love. She is able to rebuff his advances but eventually decides to seek a relationship with another white man, Mr. Sands, in hopes that he will protect her. This goes against all her principles, and she makes a strong point of how slavery makes traditional, Christian morals impossible for women. Linda and Sands have two children together, and Linda worries all the time that Flint will sell them away from her or send them to work in the fields out of spite.
Linda decides to escape to draw Flint’s attention away from the children. Her idea is to hide nearby until Flint loses interest in her and use that opportunity to escape to the North, with her children. She then spends seven years confined in her grandmother’s attic, where she cannot even stand. Finally, she makes her escape, but she cannot be secure in the North, knowing that Flint still seeks her.
The book reads like a novel, full of suspenseful moments and unforeseen complications. The chain of events leading to Linda’s escape are especially tense, even though it’s clear from the existence of the memoir that she does succeed in getting away. But, of course, this is a novel with a purpose.
As a woman, Jacobs is able to write about the sexual slavery that women experience. Even though her own circumstances were relatively comfortable as a slave, the potential for rape at the hands of Flint was a special sort of jeopardy. And even without that fear, the ease she does experience doesn’t make up for the lack of freedom because any comfort is does experience could be taken away at any moment, not by the vagaries of chance but by the capriciousness of man. Her tight-knit family could be broken up at any moment, and everyone knows it.
But Jacobs is not interested only in condemning Southern slaveholders. Although she finds many kind friends in the North who take up her cause, she is horrified by the North’s complicity in the slave trade they supposedly oppose. People who claim to support freedom — including, to some degree, Sands — cannot allow Black people to exist on their level. Prejudice prevents her from riding in the same train cars or sitting at the same table as White people. And the Fugitive Slave Act puts her in constant fear, knowing that anyone could turn her in and have her sent back to Flint.
As a historical document, this is an important book, but it’s also a good read. Its influence also appears in books like The Underground Railroad, with its attic scene that echoes Linda’s experience. I’m glad to have read it.