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Professor Sheds Light on Harriet Jacobs' Path to Freedom


Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

JEAN FAGAN YELLIN: It's lovely to be here.

MARTIN: Who was Harriet Jacobs?

FAGAN YELLIN: And in order to escape the real certainty that she would end up in concubinage, she involved herself with a very prestigious young white man, a man with more prestige than her master, had two children by him - really wanted to be sure that the children were freed, she kept asking their father to free them. He kept saying he would free them. Nothing happened. Eventually, she figured out a very strange tactic, that she thought if she ran away, that her master would not want to be bothered searching for her or paying for the upraising of the children, and that therefore he would be willing to sell her and her children to their father. So she ran.

MARTIN: And where did she go?

FAGAN YELLIN: That's exactly the question. She had nowhere to go. We know that she hid in people's houses. We know that she hid in a swamp. Eventually, in a very unlikely hiding place, she hid in a sort of attic room over her grandmother's porch. And what's even more amazing is that it was a very small space. It was about, I think, four feet by nine feet by three feet. She couldn't stand up in this space. She hid there for almost seven years. When she wrote this later, nobody believed it, because - okay seven weeks, seven months, but seven years didn't sound reasonable. But I was able to document that that's actually what happened.

MARTIN: Let me just tie a bow on that story. She eventually escaped to the North.


MARTIN: There, she managed to reunite not only with her brother, who was also a fugitive slave, but also both of her children. This is an amazing story.

FAGAN YELLIN: And it's an amazing family, because not only was her brother an activist to the anti-slavery movement, so was her daughter, when her daughter grew up.

MARTIN: Why is this amazing story not a bigger part of popular history? It's not nearly as well-known as, say, the narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass or the story of Harriet Tubman.

FAGAN YELLIN: Well, she's a woman, and so it's less likely that her story would be known than that of a man who has - is more part of the popular general culture. And we know that Harriet Tubman, of course, was the Moses of her people. And we know that Sojourner Truth was this heroic black woman. Neither of them was literate, and neither of them could write her own story. I think - I don't know. Does it seem sensible to think that the American public could accept an amazing black woman here and there as long as she didn't seem very much like them? As long as she wasn't literate? As long as her speech was not standard speech? As long as she didn't appear like they did? As long as she wasn't light-skinned as Harriet Jacobs was. I don't know. Does that sound sensible?

MARTIN: It sounds certainly plausible. Well, how was it that Harriet Jacobs was literate and was able to write so well?

FAGAN YELLIN: Her mother died when she was six, and she was taken in by the invalid, single, late teenage daughter of her mistress. And the girl really had not much of a life. And there was this bright little 6-year-old kid. And so her mistress taught her to read and to sew. Those were two wonderful skills for her, because reading enabled her, really, to free herself and then write a book. Sewing enabled her to support herself and her children later in life.

MARTIN: How old was she when she wrote this?

FAGAN YELLIN: In her 40s. She wrote it when she was sort of a nurse maid - a nanny, actually, in the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis. It's funny. Willis planned this beautiful home with a beautiful study overlooking the Hudson River so he could write wonderful books. And she was up in the garret in the servant's quarters, writing a wonderful book at night that nobody knew about.


MARTIN: Did they - did her employers help her get it published?

FAGAN YELLIN: No. Ultimately, two abolitionists - one black, one white - Lydia Maria Child and William C. Nell got to the sort of abolitionist establishment of William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonians in Boston. And the Garrisonians had money and connections with publishers. And Lydia Child read it, loved it, edited it for her and helped her publish.

MARTIN: And Lydia Maria Child was eventually believed to have been the author, incorrectly.

FAGAN YELLIN: Actually, her name is on the title page. But that wasn't because she was trying to take Jacobs' book away from her. It was because Jacobs wrote pseudonymously, and her name couldn't be on the title.

MARTIN: Why? Why did she write under a pseudonym? In fact, that raises a very interesting question. One of the things that's interesting about Harriet is the sense of shame that she carried almost throughout her life about her - how would you describe it? Her exposure to...


MARTIN: Yeah, her personal history. Do you think that was part of it? Or is it that she just didn't, as an African-American woman, as a formerly enslaved American, just didn't have the means to tell her own story publicly?

FAGAN YELLIN: But I also think Harriet Jacobs was a very smart woman who was authoring her autobiography, and that she probably could figure out that her audience of women would be very shocked by that. And that she could share in their concern on the printed page. She is a skillful writer. And we'll never know how much of this was out of her heart. In terms of the shame, I'm sure some was, because it reads that they were. But some of it may have been out of awareness of the expectations of her audience.

MARTIN: Well, what can we draw about her experience of slavery? What does her narrative tell us about how women survive slavery and how their experiences were perhaps different from those of men?

FAGAN YELLIN: To tell the story of how she fought against that, how she came to a sense of selfhood, how she was able then to translate that into action and free herself, how she was then able to translate that and articulate it - it's a very moving text.

MARTIN: What have you also discovered by sifting through the letters? They also, I think, have discovered letters from the Jacobs family. Are there any other insights you've gleamed from those in the years since you initially started to work?

FAGAN YELLIN: And then, the next thing you know, she really is thinking about writing. She writes a couple of anonymous letters to the newspapers about slave issues, and then she starts writing. It's - her transformation is of great interest.

MARTIN: And what was her life post-slavery?

FAGAN YELLIN: A lot of the letters that are wonderful are about her life in the South during the last part of the Civil War, and the very beginnings of Reconstruction. The letters are so good, actually, that we're publishing a two-volume edition in the fall with University of North Carolina Press. And there'll be Jacobs' letters, her daughters' letters, her brothers' letters of - that people sent to them, and then what people wrote about them, because they were really a phenomenon, that family.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from Harriet Jacobs's story?

FAGAN YELLIN: Often, we feel powerless - certainly, pregnant 16-year-old girls seem to feel pretty powerless. And to think that she accomplished that is, to me, quite amazing. She ends up a completely self-respecting woman, not just respected by others. See, I think that's very important.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think that people will come to - a wider public will come to appreciate this story and all that it tells us.

FAGAN YELLIN: I just learned this week that there's a theatrical company in the - Chicago that seems to be putting on a dramatic version, the Steppenwolf Company. I just read it in the papers. So I think various creative people - some artists have used her as a subject. Some poets have used her as a subject. I think as her story is known - it's such an appealing story, that this is will happen.

MARTIN: Professor Jean Fagan Yellin is professor emerita of Pace University. She's also the author of "Harriet Jacobs: A Life." She joined us from her home in Sarasota, Florida. Professor Yellin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FAGAN YELLIN: It's a joy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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