This is a much condensed version of analysis of the life of one black woman who endured slavery that I did in the Systemic Racism book. In the first published account of enslavement by a black woman, Harriet Jacobs begins her detailed description of enslavement in North Carolina about the year 1820. In this insightful account, which features a fictionalized character, Linda Brent as Jacobs herself, the author explains that her slavemaster was a lecherous physician named Dr. Flint (actually Dr. James Norcom), who enslaved at least fifty African Americans. While some scholars have emphasized that Jacobs fictionalized names and some details of her enslavement, there is much corroborating evidence for her long trial under Norcom, and her account is likely very accurate in essential evaluations.
Jacobs describes the incessant violence that North Carolina slaveholders used to extort labor and compliance from those enslaved. Many slaveholders would hide the worst realities of plantations from a northern white visitor, and how such a visitor would often go back home saying that abolitionists were exaggerating the severity of southern slavery:
What does he know of the half-starved wretches tolling from dawn til dark on the plantations? Of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? Of young girls dragged down into moral filth? Of pools of blood around the whipping post? Of hound trains to tear human flesh? Of men screwed into cotton gins to die? The slaveholder showed him none of these things … .
Speaking from everyday experience, Jacobs is eloquent here in summarizing everyday dimensions of enslavement: extreme labor, poor rations, family destruction, child sexual abuse and rape, whipping and other violence, and the intense pursuit of those seeking freedom.
Repeatedly, Jacobs offers probing sociological commentaries on enslavement of black women throughout this autobiographical account. At one point Jacobs describes how working class white men were periodically given the chance by the slaveholding elite to muster and march with muskets, in demonstrations designed to intimidate the black population. The mustered whites would often take violent action against any blacks they could locate in the surrounding area:
Every where men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet.
Jacobs’ enslaved life was one of many years in what she terms a “cage of obscene birds.” The often violent slavemaster, Dr. Flint (Norcom), constantly reminds her of his power to injure her if she does not obey his commands. When she resists his recurring attacks, he reminds her that she is “his property” and “must be subject to his will in all things.” When he found out Jacobs was pregnant with another white man’s child, he threatened her and then cut her hair off. She
replied to some of his abuse, and he struck me. Some months before, he had pitched me down stairs in a fit of passion; and the injury I received was so serious that I was unable to turn myself in bed for many days.”
In her accounts Jacobs describes many attempts at sexual violence by her slavemaster when she was a young teenager. She then adds that
My master was, to my knowledge, the father of 11 slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences.
Jacobs also notes that when she had a baby girl
my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.
Systemic gendered racism was central to slavery too. Resisting the alienation of slavery, as a young woman, she fell in love with a free black man. When her slavemaster found out, he was enraged. She pleaded with him, but he refused to let her to marry. Indeed, he described the particular black man as just a “puppy,” and Jacobs replied:
The man you call a puppy never insulted me, sir; and he would not love me if he not believe me to be a virtuous woman. He sprang upon me like a tiger, and gave me a stunning blow.
After his violent blow, Dr. Flint (Norcom) again told her that it was in his power to kill her for speaking back, as though she was not fully aware of that reality.
In her recounting the savvy Jacobs often speaks of liberty and freedom, which were indeed the driving force for much of her life. After several plans to escape from her North Carolina “prison” failed, Jacobs managed to conceal herself in the attic crawlspace of her free grandmother’s little house. For seven long years, she lived there, just beyond the touch of her family, and was unable to escape to the North. The winter cold and summer heat caused her much pain, yet she reports this pain of hiding was much less than that of her years in slavery.
Yet even when freedom came, she had no home of her own, but had to reside with the friend who had helped to liberate her. The economic losses that stemmed from having to work for whites for many of her most productive years meant that even the free Jacobs had no economic resources of her own to build up a home environment for herself and her children.