Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is the critical analysis of various interdependent systems: slavery and freedom, patriarchy and womanhood, sexuality and family, white supremacy and black resistance. It was written in dialogue with African American and White American texts, and famously establishes a complex communication with its implied White readers. Like the protagonist of Incidents, who makes use of a network of friends and family to carve out a space of resistance and ultimately an escape route from slavery, Harriet Jacobs was part of a network of Black and White abolitionist and activist circles in the southern and northern US as well as in England. Although an active and respected public figure, she never rose to the fame of a Frederick Douglass, thereby thwarting expectations of narratives of progress. Indeed, for a while in the twentieth century, she was almost forgotten and her slave narrative understood to be a fictional text; only in the 1980s her correspondence and other publications were rediscovered (predominantly by Jean Fagan Yellin, who then published the biography Harriet Jacobs: A Life in 2004).
It is these forgettings and rediscoveries—the topic of history, memory and the archive(s)—that will be one important topic in this seminar. For instance, we will trace Yellin’s scholarly work on Jacobs, explore parts of her biography and her collection of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (2008); we will do some archival research ourselves; and we will look at the production of cultural memory, e.g. in discussing the memory practices in Jacobs’s birthplace Edenton, North Carolina.
Another focus will lie on entanglements: the “monstrous intimacies” (C. Sharpe) of Whiteness and Blackness as well as the complicated networks between White and Black, male and female, writers and activists, friends and family members; the entanglements of present and past; and of course the intersectionality of race and gender. Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe are examples of authors we will read in comparison to Jacobs. Finally, we will approach Jacobs as an author and figure in American literature through close readings of Incidents and other texts, as well as through a look at the category of genre (autobiography, letter, and biography).
This is going to be a reading and research active seminar, with several assignments and individual projects as part of the class requirements.
Literature: please purchase The Second Norton Critical Edition (2019) of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. You are expected to be familiar with the primary text at the beginning of the semester. Secondary texts additional to those in the Norton Critical Edition will be made available on Moodle. A collection of books will be put on hold in the library (Semesterapparat).