Thursday, July 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 86: Harriet Ann Jacobs, The Lover (#170)

Harriet Ann Jacobs, "The Lover" (1861) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Most days I take great comfort in the idea that the arc of history bends towards justice; but I'm not sure I really believe it--and even if it is true, why does that arc have to take so goddamn long.

Case in point, Harriet Jacobs's fabulous Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which tells the messed-up, Django-esque story of Harriet Jacobs, who was abused and terrorized by her male owner, who honestly seemed confused about why she didn't love his attention. Meanwhile, the wife, rather than take it out on the husband who liked to rape slave girls, takes it out on the slave girls. Jacobs's story goes on from there, telling her incredible story of hiding in an attic for years before escaping to the North. And it's so incredible that I can't totally blame people in the 20th century for not believing it--and yet, I kind of can: why is that some readers, without evidence, always assume that someone else wrote works by other people? "Frankenstein written by a girl? Ridiculous." "This beautiful and well-written memoir written by a black woman? Don't make me laugh."

This LoA collection excerpts only a part of the memoir; for the full thing, check out the LoA's collection of slave narratives, which are complex and interesting, both each on their own and all taken together as a genre. As far as excerpts go, this does a pretty good job of capturing the violence and oppression and weirdness. (Whenever I read the master, he's always a monster, but always a little confused by why Harriet would consider him a monster. I'm reminded of the weirdness of James Henry Hammond, slave-owner and rapist, who left a letter to his son(?), exhorting him to take care of the "family, white and black" after JHH's death. How weird is that? You can rape a woman, sell your child into slavery elsewhere if you need the money--and then turn around say "we're all one family"? As many abolitionists noted, slavery does damage to slave-owners as well.)

Like Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs focuses her attention on the emotional aspect of the black slave, the  reminder that, you know, black people don't like when their families are broken up and they are forced into bad situations. What I've always enjoyed about Jacobs's memoir is that her position (after the fact, free in the North) allows her to note that slaves would be better off not falling in love with other blacks--but that she was a young woman, so of course she fell in love.

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