American slaves were forbidden by law from learning to read and write. Those who did could lose an eye, a hand; any who taught them could be fined or imprisoned. Despite such heinous obstacles, by the eve of the Civil War, American blacks, alone among New World slaves, had developed a vigorous literary tradition whose core was the so-called slave narratives, the first-person stories of escaped and former slaves describing their life in slavery and their decision to escape. The tales of oppression and resistance testify to the brutalities of America's peculiar institution and the strength of its victims. Most of the narratives were actually written by the former slaves and often detail the tricks and ruses slaves used to cheat their way to literacy. In the best of them, the desire for literacy feeds the narrator's yearning for liberty. The dual quest for liberty and literacy remains a feature of modern Afro-American autobiography and, along with gender, links Pauli Murray's account of her public triumphs in the 20th Century to Harriet Jacobs' revelations of her private, and representative, humiliations in the 19th Century. Together the two memoirs portray almost two centuries of black women's lives in the United States and illuminate once again some of the lows and many of the highs of that history.
Few of the narrators of the antebellum memoirs of escaped slaves were women; victims of racism and sexism, their opportunities to escape or to educate themselves were even more restricted than the opportunities for slave men. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is thus all the more precious because it gives us a glimpse into the life of that often maligned, always stereotyped figure of the antebellum South, the black woman. Harriet Jacobs (writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent) was born into a relatively stable slave family in North Carolina. She spent the early part of her childhood in the home of her parents; her maternal grandmother and other relatives lived in the neighborhood. Harriet didn't even know she was a slave until her mother's death when she was removed to the home of her owner. Harriet's grandmother, a manumitted slave, widely respected in the district, saved Harriet from the harsher forms of overwork and punishment common to slaves and was later instrumental in preventing the sale of Harriet's two children. She could not, however, protect Harriet from the lecherous advances of Harriet's master.
The story of Harriet's headlong plunge into shame (as she, steeped in 19th-Century morality, sees her decision to take a lover who had no control over her rather than accept her master's advances) and her rise to freedom is a provocative real-life play on "the madwoman in the attic" motif in 19th-Century women's literature. (Jacobs hides in her grandmother's tiny attic for seven years before finally escaping to the North.) Jean Fagan Yellin's excellent introduction and copious notes document the authenticity of the text and Jacobs' authorship and flesh out the background of events and characters without distracting from the flow of the narrative.
"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is an evocation of the buried life of 19th-Century women; Murray's "Song in a Weary Throat" celebrates the public life of a social activist. Granddaughter of a slave and great-granddaughter of a slave-owner, Murray was reared by her maternal grandparents (whose lives she chronicled in the family history, "Proud Shoes" (1956). After segregated schooling in North Carolina, Murray worked her way through Hunter College in New York City and graduated in the heart of the Depression. Like many of her generation, Murray's first regular employment was through the WPA, which also provided her first serious contact with the labor movement. Her social conscience already alive to injustices suffered by blacks, Murray was awakened to the universal dimensions of the struggle for human dignity by sustained contact with the labor movement.
Murray moved from labor organization to civil rights, then law and eventually the ministry. Along the way, she formed an acquaintance with Eleanor Roosevelt that began in 1938 and continued until Roosevelt's death, organized the first student sit-ins in Washington, authored the "bible" of the legal attack on the separate but equal doctrine, the book, "States Laws on Race and Color," participated in the founding of the National Organization of Women and became one of the first women ordained as Episcopal ministers.
Murray does not engage in the kind of soul searching that surrounds each step of Jacobs' rebellion. She disposes of a brief early marriage in a sentence or two and omits any further mention of the personal that does not have a direct bearing on her public life. In place of the private revelations in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," "Song in a Weary Throat" gives refreshing, often amusing vignettes of the unsung heroes of the progressive struggles in which Murray labored and important insights into the legal and legislative battles that provided the foundations for the contemporary civil rights and women's movements. Both are highly recommended.