The Voice of a Bondwoman

t’s been quiet on here. Personal and professional lives like getting in the way of my leisure time, the time I take to write, read, and reflect, but I decided that it’s only February and that I cannot already be so stressed in 2018 that I don’t get time to write.

Anyway, I recently finished reading ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ by Harriet Jacobs, and the story of this woman’s journey from bondage to freedom has not let me go since.

His-tory needs more of Her-story

The narrative is written by Harriet Jacobs herself, a fact which arose my curiosity from the beginning, since it’s common knowledge that most slaves were illiterate and that severe punishment could be brought upon those who attempted to learn how to read and write. Some bondmen, such as Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography was a best-seller at the time of publication and is still widely read today, is one of the examples of people who were subjected to slavery but became literate against the odds.

As is the case most times in history, if there are exceptions to the rule, it’s mostly men who are talked about, making it seem like women were not part of those exceptions. I have learnt, however, that just because we do not talk or know about them does not mean that women did not defy the odds of their times. A recent example of this is the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly ‘Hidden Figures’, which presents to the world three exceptional women who helped America put men into space. I’m sure only a few people knew about these women before, but the book and film adaptation put the lives and successes of these extraordinary women into the public consciousness. So when I came across the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, a bondwoman, I knew I had to buy a copy and get reading.

‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’

I devoured the book in two days, even though it was not an easy read. She writes with such candour and honesty, and the memories and incidents of her life pierce straight through your heart and soul. I was continuously struggling to keep reading, with the lines becoming blurry because of the tears in my eyes. Jacobs narrates the life of a slave, the life of a woman, and the life of a slave woman. She tells the story of herself and her family, and clearly discerns between the differences in treatment and problems that are faced by men and women, respectively. The women in her life are the heroines, and she herself, although probably unaware, is one, too.

Female kinship, power, influence, and strength figure at the heart of the narrative. Jacobs herself draws strength from her grandmother, who has become a free woman, and her relentless pursuit for freedom for herself and her children are what keep her going through the almost unbearable trials of her life. At times, I could not fathom where she would get the strength and endurance from to suffer through years of persecution and hardship.

How Harriet Jacobs’ Life Story Resonates Today

While this memoir was written in the 19th century, I could not help but relate it to the present day. Harriet Jacobs’ pursuit of ‘free papers’ and the importance of having a piece of paper stating that one is ‘free’ inevitably reminded me of the struggles many people face today.

Back in the 19th century it was ‘free papers’ that were coveted, nowadays it’s Visas, Work Permits, European or American Passports that are coveted, fought for or dreamed about in the name of freedom or a better life. While the visible chains have fallen off, invisible ones are still shackled on many. European hegemony, supremacy, and exploitation still make many people leave or flee their homes, sell their souls in the pursuit of freedom and Western ‘papers’. This, in turn, still emboldens law enforcement agents to stop people and, in their sense of entitlement, demand to see ‘papers’, as if paper could determine the value of a human.

If you have ‘papers’, at least on the surface, you belong, but even if you’re ‘free’ or have your visa, your permit, your passport, American and European history have shown and are, sadly, still showing that if it isn’t white, it isn’t right.