Monthly Archives: January 2018

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs published the original #metoo in 1860, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Following on the heels of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Jacobs knew the real challenge in writing her story, the first Woman’s Slave Narrative written, would be to be believable to the white women of the North- her intended audience. She feared writing the full truth of the sexual predation she and other slave women had endured would only make white women view her as reaching for sympathy she didn’t deserve- she feared victim blaming. “There are some things that I might have made plainer I know… I have left nothing out but what I thought the world might believe that a Slave Woman was too willing to pour out—that she might gain their sympathies” Jacobs wrote to abolitionist Quaker Amy Post upon completing “Incidents” in 1860. (Harriet A. Jacobs, docsouth.unc.edu)

Perhaps because of her relationships with white women abolitionists, like Post, and Lydia Maria Child, who would edit “Incidents,” Jacobs knew well the minefield she was tip-toeing through in recounting how slave owner Dr. James Norcom pursued her through his home beginning when she was 15 years old. Norcom preferred to attempt to coerce Jacobs into acquiescing to his desires, which he would whisper into Jacobs’ ear as she attempted to complete her work in the Norcom house. She lived under the constant threat of knowing, at any time, Norcom could become bored with his games, and simply rape her, if he wanted. And it would be her fault, as the exotic savage tempting her good white owner. It wouldn’t matter that she had constantly rebuffed his advances and avoided being anywhere near him. Her escape became another white man, a local lawyer whom Jacobs found a taste of freedom with- in making her choice of lover. She hoped, also, the lawyer would buy her physical freedom, or at least that of the two children they shared. A hope that would go unfulfilled.

Jacobs was well educated by Margaret Horniblow, the woman who had owned her and her mother. Before her mother died, Jacobs was blissfully unaware, as she recalled, of her status as a slave. She lived happily with her family on the Horniblow property, and her education was overseen by Margaret. At age six, Jacobs’ mother died, and she officially became the property of Margaret, who continued to educate Jacobs, until Margaret’s death, just six years after Jacobs lost her mother. At age 12, Jacobs entered the Norcom home as the willed house girl to Horniblow’s 3 year old niece. Because Jacobs had been educated, she was well aware of the precarious nature of her life at that time; and years later, preparing to publish “Incidents,” she was painfully aware of how the pious society of white women of the North would receive a story of two white men lusting after a young black girl.

She had anticipated her audience well. In 1860, it was easier for her white counterparts to focus on Jacobs’ unwavering determination applied to freeing her people, and then educating freedmen, rather than recall her history with her white owners and lover, and her accounts of the treatment of other women held as slaves at the hands of their white women owners; which were cruel beyond contemplation. Indeed, while “Incidents” was a great motivator in both the States and Europe to end slavery, and Jacobs herself was active in gaining strength and support for the Civil War in the North, her story would not be published again until more than 100 years after the initial publication, in 1973.

Jacobs would have two children by Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the lawyer whom she allied herself with as protection against Norcom. Undeterred by her relationship with Sawyer, Norcom continued to pursue Jacobs, and she continued to thwart his advances. In 1835, 10 years after her arrival, Norcom threatened to send Jacobs and her children to work on his plantation, for the children to be “broke-in” to punish Jacobs. Anticipating Norcom would no longer be a threat to her children if she disappeared, Jacobs made Norcom believe she had run away. Jacobs asked Sawyer to buy his children from Norcom, and to emancipate the children as soon as he could. He bought his children, he did not emancipate them. For 7 years Jacobs lived in a crawl space over a porch storeroom in her grandmother’s home, keeping an eye on her children, hiding from Norcom, until she was finally able to escape North.

10 years after her escape North, Jacobs found both her children and brought them to live with her in Boston, close to the home of her abolitionist employer, and the man who would finally emancipate her, Nathaniel Parker Willis. After the publication of “Incidents” and the end of the war, 5 years later, in 1865, Jacobs and her daughter, Louisa, would go on to open a school for freedmen in Alexandria, VA. Jacobs continued to be active in Reconstruction Era relief work as long as she could, even returning to volunteer in the town in which she had lived as a slave. Jacobs died a free woman in DC in 1897.

Jacobs understood the value of education in navigating a world built to use, abuse, and erase you. A world willing only to peek at its darkness before hiding it again for 100 years. A world that invests in and profits from victim blaming and silence. Education is our weapon to break the silence, to face the darkness, and emerge from the ashes, together.

 

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Alex Haley

Alex Haley never suffered from writer’s block. Indeed, he would often write two books at a time, switching between them as his inspiration, or frenetic energy dictated. It was isolation he sought as he boarded cargo ships years after his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959 as the first Chief Petty Officer Journalist- a rating created in recognition of his literary skill. The Coast Guard now awards the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award annually. Though Haley did not enter the Coast Guard as a journalist.

Haley began following in his father’s (a professor of Agriculture at Alabama A&M) footsteps, enrolling in Alcorn State University at age 15. But a year later he transferred to Elizabeth City State and at 17 he withdrew from college. At 18 Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 20 years, developing his writing career between cooking leftovers. A career that began with drafting love letters for his fellow guardsmen, whom he referred to as his clients. Portentous of his later work with Malcolm X, Haley would take notes while talking with his “clients” and the next day draw inspiration from the sea as he wrote what he described as “successful” letters for the guardsmen.

When he wasn’t writing, Haley was reading. He luxuriated in the writing of the great men of his time. James Baldwin “could take a comma and make it crack like a black snake whip,” he said during his 1991 University of Washington’s Upon Reflections Interview, “Digging up the Root of ‘Roots.'” He went on to talk about Hemingway; “you felt the fish bite.” Haley would come face to face with one of these great men.

Upon leaving the Coast Guard, Haley was determined to become a writer. He wrote letters to the writers whom he was most influenced by, asking them for help, advice, some direction to set him down the right path. James Baldwin lived 8 blocks from Haley at the time, and he walked down to Haley’s modest home, which became more so to Haley as he sat across from this great man. Baldwin settled in and spoke with Haley as if they were old friends, which, years later they would indeed become. Up to his death, Haley was diligent in replying to young writers’ requests for advice, passing along the invaluable favor he once hungrily received from Baldwin.

Haley is best known for “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” His novel about his family’s history which became a ground-breaking mini-series with 130 million viewers, in 1977. “You don’t try to top it,” he said, “you become a spectator” after you send off the manuscript. He was sincerely humbled by his own work- by the value his fellow citizens found in it. Of course, that doesn’t preclude him from his own opinion; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, ” he said, “was much better written, from a professional point of view.” Haley wrote X’s Autobiography from notes from 50 interviews, a couple to several hours a piece.

He also interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for Playboy; the longest interview Dr. King granted any publication or media outlet. Haley had previously made history with Playboy, writing the first interview for the publication; on Miles Davis, in 1962. Haley made a career of interviews and compiling histories. His earnest approach to personal histories encouraged those around him to grant him access. He became friends with his hero, James Baldwin, and he also became intimate with both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Haley said of the two men, “They were two dear friends in that time, him, Malcolm X, and Dr. King. …The two were so similar, had you given either the other’s background, they would have become the other.”

It was this earnest interest in telling the stories of our people that propelled Haley toward greatness with “Roots.” “‘Roots’ really was about a family. And that was- it seems to me- the common denominator that made it universal.” When a book could trace a black family that far back, he said, it challenged others to trace theirs. Haley described “Roots” as providing “understanding” of the Black experience, rather than “empathy.” “The timing was absolutely a major part,” he said. By 1976 the country had been exposed to what was happening, to the effects of racism, people were ready conceptually, he explained. “People were subdued, both black and white, by what ‘Roots’ portrayed,” Haley explained, they became more interested in finding common ground. In 1991, he observed that the people had “been deluded- in historical terms.”

17 years after 1991, perhaps, in remembering Alex Haley, we should do our part in undoing our delusion, and seek out our own histories and find our way to understanding each other again.