Is calling Harriet Ann Jacobs, a teenage runaway slave who hid in a crawl space for nearly seven years, a black “Anne Frank,” helpful or disrespectful?
The answer is “yes, both.” Analogies are like medicines—most have side effects. Historians like using the familiar to access the unfamiliar, yet dislike reducing complex events to one dimension that resonates—and risks implying that fame always predominates.
Anne Frank died seven months after the Nazis raided the “Secret Annex” where she hid for two years. She was fifteen. Harriet Jacobs escaped her oppressors and lived until 84. She became, er, a black Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a female Frederick Douglass. Her searing memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl defied America’s proprieties to expose what happened when men treated women as property.
Born in 1813 into a family of skilled “house slaves” in Edenton, North Carolina, Jacobs at first didn’t feel like a slave. “I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise,” she recalled.
When Jacobs was six her mother died. She started working for her mother’s owner, Margaret Horniblow, who taught Jacobs how to read and write not just sew.
In 1825, Horniblow died, robbing the eleven-year-old house slave of her protector – and her naivete. Willed with her brother Jacob, like furniture, to Horniblow’s three-year-old niece Mary Matilda Norcom, the children now answered to Mary’s tyrannical father. Dr. James Norcom soon taught Jacobs that “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” – especially budding teenagers. Some chronicles call what Jacobs endured “sexual harassment” – that’s like soft-pedaling murder as a “crime.” Norcom was a sexual terrorist.
In fathering at least eleven children, Norcom joined many Southern slaveholders in celebrating Southern womanhood while humiliating their wives. Caught between an “unprincipled master and a jealous mistress,” Jacob felt some sisterhood with the betrayed wife. After all, “the mistress as well as the slave must submit to the indignities and vices imposed on them by their lords of body and soul.” But Norcom’s wife couldn’t reciprocate. She so “pitied herself as a martyr … she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.”
Seeking protection, Jacobs tried marrying a free black carpenter. Her “master” – Norcom — blocked it. Desperate, the 13-year-old Jacobs then started sleeping with a 26-year-old white lawyer and future Congressman, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. In 1829, when she was 16, Jacobs bore Joseph. Louisa Matilda arrived four years later.