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TheVineSeries:ThePetitionofHarrietJacobs

Nsikan Akpan
almost 2 years Story
The Vine Series: The Petition of Harriet Jacobs

            Welcome to The Vine Series, my collection of black writers and scholars whose works I have either analyzed in one of my college courses, or on my own. Compositions written in this series will be supported by academic journals written by professors, lawyers, doctors, critics, scientists, and even fellow students who possess a profound knowledge on the distinct subject of interest. This assortment of black figures will concentrate on people we don't normally study in school settings, such as Frances E. W. Harper, Amiri Baraka, and J. Cole. There will be times where focus is brought to leaders we most likely have studied, for instance, Phillis Wheatley or Paul Laurence Dunbar, and will provide further insight that a one hour class could not allow.

            If you don’t know by now, I am enthralled by the entire black Diaspora, therefore I will look into the works of our brothers and sisters across the pond. Jamaica Kincaid, Marcus Garvey, and Chinua Achebe are just a few of the many black creatives that did not stem from the United States. As well as an analysis of one's creation, appreciation will be shown for the person and how they impacted today's culture. When posting these articles, I strongly encourage you to comment and start discussion. I am not a teacher. I will always be a student and when I write something, I don’t want to come across as an educator, when in fact, I am just an average girl with an opinion. So please, let’s learn!

            Also! Feel free to make suggestions on who our next black writer should be. Please be sure the person is a writer or scholar. I’m gearing away from entertainers--J. Cole is a snowflake--because they get a lot shine as it is, almost to the point of distracting us from the other things that we are capable of. Yes, movies matter, but who are the black screenwriters that come up with the concept? Music matters, but what about the inventors of sound? Blues didn’t come out of the ground. Who was the genius that took our moaning and groaning on the fields and turned them into masterpieces of sadness? I want to know these things, don’t you?

            I must admit that what I am doing is not an original idea; things like this have been done before. Much appreciation goes to Seren, a black writer who has a YouTube channel, Sensei Aishitemasu, that focuses mainly on black issues, but discusses the general state of our society as well.

Let's Get Started. 

The Petition of Harriet Jacobs

            When my eleventh grade English teacher plopped our next reading assignment onto my desk, I was terrified by the dark woman on the cover. Of course, my horror was due to self-hate and colorism, but the stories that would come from the author, Harriet Jacobs, far surpassed that. The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl utilizes an informal, yet informative tone to recall the events of Jacobs’s life in slavery. The structure of the narrative takes readers from the beginning—to when Jacobs was six years old and discovered she was a slave—to the end—when she wasn’t. Though she did not remain enslaved for the entirety of her life, Jacobs’s persuasive writing style can turn a strong-willed racist into an abolitionist.

            The author’s appeal to emotion in this narrative is drawn by simply restating the facts: “I had a fine head of hair…He cut every hair close to my head,” (Jacobs, 240). In the black community, hair is a big deal. It goes far back to the ancestors in Africa, who used their manes to represent status, tribe, and celebration. When it came to slavery, African-American hair took the back seat, as there were more important things to worry about, such as surviving the whip. However, what the ancestors believe never goes away completely. The fact that Jacobs found it necessary to recall the event, shows readers that her crown meant something, and meant even more when she lost it. (This statement can be found in my previous article, "Don't Touch my Hair...Or Ask if it's Mine")

            Getting into the logos of the text, the question “is racism logical?” can be a recurring one. Is it logical for “ignorant followers who were unable to read” to take part in an annual muster(1)? Is it not irrational for poor white people to be given the opportunity to greedily rummage through the hard-earned homes of well-to-do Blacks? The fact that Linda “entertained no positive fears” about her household because she was “in the midst of white families” who would protect her does not seem unreasonable to anyone who owns a home? Did Linda and her family not have every right to protect their dwelling place without the interference of a helping hand? (Jacobs, 236-237) Was there anything logical about slavery to begin with?

            Though she breaks the “fourth wall” quite a bit, Jacobs never says to readers “See! Look at me! Look at what slavery made me do!” In fact, Jacobs blames herself before her circumstances. Her honest approach about the events in her life establishes trust amongst her readers because she does not hold back. She is sure to account for all the wrong she has done all the while discarding any need to spite the wrongs of others. In the affair of sleeping with Mr. Sands, Jacobs writes, “I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day…I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.” (Jacobs, 234) In this statement Jacobs not only reveals her guilt for something many deem unethical, but she reminds readers that she was living in a time where slave women did not have many choices.

            The story of Jacobs, as many stories before our time, connects to today in a number of ways; one being the incident with her brother, William. When William is called on by his father and his mistress(2) at the same time, he chooses to go to his mistress; something he later learns is a mistake. “"You are my child,’ replied our father, ‘and when I call you, you should come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water.’” (Jacobs, 227) When caught between father and master, who must one obey? This is a question that still lives on in the black community. Since slavery—as well as imperialism and colonialism—black men have been attempting to establish authority within the community and have yet to maintain that position. Their manhood is constantly tested by laws structured to keep them meek. It is no surprise that even hundreds of years later, the black community has an easier time submitting to white authority before its own. When a black man or woman stands in a position of leadership, their own people are quick to label them a “coon” or “bedwench,” without thinking for a second before doing so to a white person.

            My response to Harriet Jacobs’s narrative can only be summed up in one statement: We will never understand the present without the help of the past. It always feels like we’re getting there, and then Charleston happens, and then Charlottesville happens, and then I lose hope. But it is the works of Jacobs, as well as Baldwin, Morrison, and even today’s Issa Rae, who restore that hope in showing me that I am not the only one. Because of them, I am grateful.

1. A formal gathering of troops, especially for inspection, display, or exercise. It was a common practice for soldiers to ransack the homes of blacks, turn their homes into disarray and steal cherished items. 

2. A woman in a position of authority or control.

Works Cited

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 3rd ed. Vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.


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