Survivor stories: Harriet Ann Jacobs
Sexual exploitation was a pervasive part of many enslaved girls’ childhood. The story of Harriet Jacobs traces the narrative of a Black woman who experienced sexual harassment and violence from a young age. Harriet suffered abuse and violence at the hands of her master James Norcom, who began sexually harassing and abusing Harriet when she was 12 years old. The abuse continued through much of her adolescence.
Years after escaping from the sexual abuse she endured from James Norcom, Harriet began sending anonymous letters to the New York Tribune. In one titled “Letter from a Fugitive Slave. Slaves Sold Under Particular Circumstances”, written on June 21, 1853, Harriet wrote of the sexual abuse of slave women and their mothers’ attempts to stop them.
Unknown to the popular imagination, Harriet Jacobs was actually the first enslaved woman to author a slave narrative in the United States, having Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl published in 1860. Through this narrative, Harriet wanted to “indict the southern patriarchy for its sexual tyranny over Black women like herself.” Incidents became one of the first accounts of the sexual violence that many enslaved Black women endured, speaking to “the brutalization of Black girls and women by white slave-masters”... who viewed them as sexual savages.
Harriet later became an abolitionist and reformer who escaped slavery and bondage. Her narrative of child sexual abuse reflects the stories of thousands of women who were captured and lived in captivity for most of their lives. Harriet’s life and experience is a herstory of sexual vulnerability and resilience.
Harriet Jacobs would later tell the story of Sally Hemings who was also violated and exploited as a young girl by slave master Thomas Jefferson.