Harriet Jacobs is often compared to Anne Frank, whose family hid in an attic from the Nazis for two years before they were captured and sent to the death camps.
Fortunately, Jacobs' story has a happier ending -- but not before this young runaway slave endured seven years hiding from her lecherous master in a crawl space above her grandmother's house in North Carolina.
In a desperate attempt to flee the violent man who was obsessed with her sexually and had threatened to sell her children, Harriet sought out the sanctuary in 1835. She was in her early 20s at the time and did not know she would live in that dark, coffin-like space for so many years. Food was passed up to her through a trap door, she had to contend with mice and rats scurrying over her, and tiny red insects feasted on her blood.
To make matters worse, Harriet could hear her two children's voices, being raised below by her grandmother, a freed slave.
"I heard the voices of my children. There was joy and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow. How I longed to speak to them! I was eager to look on their faces; but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep. This continued darkness was oppressive," Harriet wrote in her book "Incidents in the Life a Slave Girl."
Eventually, Jacobs bored holes in the attic so she could have more light and air, and more importantly, see her children play and grow.
Her story goes on to tell of her eventual escape to the North and how her two children were eventually freed from slavery. Although their father was a white man whom Harriet had taken as a lover to defy her master, the children were still considered slaves -- the law dictated that slavery follow the mother's line.
Harriet herself was mulatto and perhaps as much white as she was black. But that didn't matter when it came to the law. Her mother had been a slave. She was a slave, and her children would be slaves.
Jacobs' autobiography, published in 1861 under the pen name "Linda Brent," is one of two slave narratives being examined during this year's Weber Reads community reading program.
Adrienne Gillespie, coordinator of Weber State University's Diversity and Unity Center, will present "Harriet Jacobs: Recent Scholarship" at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Hetzel-Hoellein Room of the university's Stewart Library.
Gillespie said there has been speculation that the events described in the narrative could not be one person's life, but rather a composite of several people.
"There was so much information and people felt like it couldn't all be one person's story," Gillespie said.
However, recent research by the scholar Jean Fagan Yellin proves otherwise. Yellin is the author of "Harriet Jacobs: A Life," (Basic Civitas Books, 2005), and editor of "The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers." Gillespie's presentation on Tuesday will include some of his research.
"He was able to was go back though journals, newspapers and other historical writing of the period and prove, in fact, that she was a real person," Gillespie said. "To be able to demonstrate through historical documentation that this woman's story is real and valid is very powerful."
Some find it difficult to accept the reality of slave narratives "because people didn't think that slaves could write, because there isn't an extensive history written by slaves and because frankly, most of them did not and could not have the skill set to do that," Gillespie said.
But with slave journals by authors such as Olaudah Equiano and others, Gillespie said, readers can discover a rich history that describes the antebellum era in extraordinary detail.
"You have these amazing works of slave journals that are able to articulate all kinds of power dynamics and social justice issues that, frankly, people weren't willing to see as part of the black diaspora of America," Gillespie said. "It can be difficult for some people to be open to the possibility that these writings could exist."
A literary lesson
The fact that Harriet Jacobs was able to read and write with such eloquence is explained early in her narrative.
When Harriet was 12, her first mistress died in North Carolina. Harriet was tormented by the fact that a woman she loved and respected, the woman who taught her to read and write, left her and her family in bondage upon her death.
"My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' 'Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.' But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory."
A slave woman
Forrest Crawford, a professor in the department of teacher education at Weber State, said African-American women suffered the greatest under slavery and faced its most daunting challenges.
While they raised their master's children, Crawford asks, who was raising their own?
Even worse, what happens to a woman when she is seen as nothing more than chattel and a sexual plaything?
Harriet Jacob's own words vividly answer that question: "If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave."
Jacobs wrote: "The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will."
Jacobs writes at the end of that passage that "resistance is hopeless."
By the end of her story, however, Harriet Jacobs demonstrated that resistance is not hopeless.
She proved that by finally escaping by boat to Philadelphia, becoming an outspoken abolitionist and writing her life story, which helped fuel the anti-slavery movement and became a template for early feminist literature.
And, now, her words remind us of the mistakes of our past -- and that we must be vigilant against repeating those mistakes.
Crawford points out that while oppression and subjugation of people take on different guises in today's world, it is still oppression and subjugation.
"And if we are operating that way today, are we really learning from the past?" said Crawford. "We may be doing it in a different way, but if we are oppressing today like the way we oppressed yesterday, have we really learned that there is no role for oppression?"
WEBER READS SCHEDULE
Two slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life a Slave Girl" and "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave," are the focus of this year's Weber Reads program.
Events continue through April in the Hetzel-Hoellein Room of the Stewart Library, Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden. All events are free and open to the public.
Tuesday -- 12:30 p.m., "Harriet Jacobs: Recent Scholarship"; Adrienne Gillespie, WSU Diversity & Unity Center
March 22 -- 12:30 p.m., "Readers Theatre: Harriet Jacobs"; WSU department of performing arts
April 5 --12:30 p.m., "Reconstruction to Civil Rights: Legacies of Douglass & Jacobs"; Susan Matt, WSU history department