Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Authentication of Harriet Jacobs

Some research is more challenging than others and can't simply be done by tracking down leads on the Internet. 

This week, Darlene Williams shares the details of one determined woman's effort to tell her story and another's dogged devotion to verifying and authenticating that narrative more than a hundred years later.

In 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in Boston.  Edited by L. Maria Child, the author is noted as “Written by Herself” and signed Linda Brent. 

On the frontispiece, there are two quotations:

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.” 
--A Woman of North Carolina

“Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech.”    
                                                          --Isaiah xxxii.9

An appendix to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Amy Post dated October 30, 1859, Rochester, N.Y., states:

“The author of this book is my highly-esteemed friend.  If its readers knew her as I know her, they could not fail to be deeply interested in her story.

"…her appearance was prepossessing, and her deportment indicated remarkable delicacy of feeling and purity of thought.

"After the labors of the day were over, she traced secretly and wearily, by the midnight lamp, a truthful record of her eventful life.”

Lydia Maria Child, in her introduction, asserts:

“I have not added any thing [sic] to the incidents, or changed the import of her very pertinent remarks.  With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the language are her own.  I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had no reason for changing her lively and dramatic way of telling her own story.”

Child also claimed in her introduction that she knew and trusted the author who wrote under the pseudonym “Linda Brent”.

What follows is a gripping narrative of a young slave girl stalked by a lecherous master well into womanhood, who spared no effort, devious machination, or expense to claim his ultimate goal:  subjugation and possession of Linda Brent. Linda Brent, for her part, endured tribulations almost beyond belief, to prevent her master from victory and protect her two young children, fathered by another man.

Harrier Jacobs/Linda Brent
(Wikimedia Commons)
For decades, the authorship of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remained in dispute.  Accepted scholarly opinion, in particular that of Yale historian John Blassingame, claimed the true author was Lydia Maria Child, while others maintained it was a work of fiction. The events recounted in the narrative are so fantastical as to be unbelievable.  The lack of dates, names and places in the narrative merely added weight to the theory it was a work of fiction, as did anti-slavery laws that prohibited slave literacy.

So, who exactly was Linda Brent?  Professor Jean Fagan Yellin, who had read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl while working on her dissertation, spent over two decades of her life pursuing the answer to this question. In her quest for the truth, Yellin, obtained letters written by a Harriet Jacobs from amongst Child’s papers. When she compared the contents of the letters and the narrative, she felt sure she had found the answer.

Linda Brent was Harriet Jacobs, a slave born in Edenton, North Carolina. 

The next six years were spent working in collaboration with researcher, George Stevenson, to authenticate Harriet Jacobs as the author and subject of the slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In 1987, Harvard University Press published Yellin’s edition of Incidents, endorsed by Professor Blassingame, who reversed his earlier conclusion based on Yellin and Stevenson’s research. One hundred twenty-six years after publication, Harriet and her life were vindicated.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the single extant United States female slave narrative.  As such, it is a treasure.

Harriet’s narrative extends beyond merely an archival anomaly.  Her identity was forgotten by history after her self-publication of Incidents.  This astounding tale, written by a courageous, determined woman who fought the tyranny of both slavery and master, is deserving of rediscovery by this generation and those that follow.

Darlene Elizabeth Williams is a historical fiction and nonfiction author, freelance writer and mentor.  She is currently in the research stage for her historical novel My Name is Harriet.  Darlene can be found at

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