Tag Archives: slave

Homage to Harriet Jacobs


Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. She managed to free her two children, remain hidden in her own town for seven years (while a vicious owner relentlessly hunted her), escape to the free states, avoid capture after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, make a living, start a school after the Civil War, and somewhere in there, to write a remarkable memoir. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” tells the chilling and inspiring account of her life. Here is an excerpt:

Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within the hearing of his voice.

Ms. Jacobs was initially owned by a woman who promised to free her. As often happened, however, the promise was not made good, and Ms. Jacobs passed through the estate of her mistress to the testator’s three year old niece. The niece’s father was a lecher and harassed and pursued Harriet, until in a desperate bid for safety, she allied herself with a white neighbor. At 16, Ms. Jacobs bore that neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the first of their two children. He would go on to become a U.S. Congressman.


Spring and summer reading

Afraid that her children would be sold and sent away, or shipped off to a distant relative of her tormentor, Jacobs ran away, hoping that Sawyer would buy them. Through an agent, Sawyer did, though he did not free them as she had hoped. Jacobs hid in a garage and then the teeny garrison of her grandmother’s home for a total of seven years. She survived horrible cold and heat, invasive stinging bugs, and near loss of the use of her limbs from being cramped for so long. How she managed to survive defies understanding. Like many bondwomen with children, her concern and longing for those children seem instrumental in keeping her alive.


Harriet’s stone is inscribed: “Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord”

How she escapes, manages to arrange for the freeing of her children, and her encounters in the north are fascinating and important pieces of American history. This slave narrative is provocative, well-written, and horrifying.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s book on the Hemingses has been a great companion text to “Incidents”, particularly on the topic of the kinds of calculations and risks a bondwoman might make in allying herself with a powerful white man (in that case, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings).



Just as I was finishing the memoir, I learned that Harriet Jacobs was buried in nearby Cambridge, Mass., in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Two weeks ago, K and I went to pay our respects. It was the only stone we saw that day with visible tokens of respect carefully placed on its upper edge. Three stones and a penny. Having forgotten to cut the irises that I meant to bring from my garden, I laid another coin above her name.

* The book spells ‘Harriet’ with one ‘t’. Obviously, her gravestone spells her name with two.

A door in

I have been working on a geometric piece this weekend.  It was two mid-sized panels of fairly finished piecing with green leaves and hut shapes — part Treasure Island Quilt leftovers, part Global Warming colors and themes.

With lots of cutting, seaming, repositioning, pawing through bins looking for this particular scrap or that one, sometimes lucking out and sometimes not, I found myself aware that the  ‘endless re-arranging’ cycle of design was in full swing.  I was curious – was there some way to minimize this phase and still produce something really pleasing?  In the past, I’ve noticed that the endless redesigning doesn’t necessarily produce IMPROVEMENTS, but instead generates variations.  I really didn’t want to design six quilts in the process of making ONE – not this time.

So, what if I made this quilt about something entirely different than some of the original piecing would dictate?  And what if having that new idea in my head directed my remaining choices in a way that was more efficient?

Yesterday, after dropping my thimble down in between the bleachers at C’s track meet, I abandoned the Choo Choo blanket quilting and plucked out my kindle.  I have been reading a book about the Middle Passage called “The Slave Ship – A Human History” by Marcus Rediker.  Even when I’m at home, I only read this text a little at a time, partly because it is horrifying to absorb, and partly because it’s on my kindle, which I’ll admit I use primarily for playing Scrabble.

But this morning, remembering the true account I’d just read of the rape of an 8 year old girl by the ship’s captain, I glanced up at the quilt, and suddenly saw its potential to become about the slave trade… the kidnapping of families from their homes, the dreadful march to the coast, the disgusting, brutality-filled, and dehumanizing trip across the Atlantic.

The quilt features what had previously struck me as an overly large black piece of snake fabric.  Perhaps I can think about this differently now.  The surrounding lush colors, which in an earlier thought process had represented Africa (from Treasure Island Quilt for A Boy), will remain about Africa.  But now the chaotic patterning and fragmentation will stand in as a visual representation for the ruination of souls… the process of turning a person into a piece of property.  The loss of so much more than home, but also that.

The questions, then, about whether to make the piece two panels or one…

and how to resolve the lower edge, will now be informed by an entirely new set of criteria… consistent with what has already been worked, but potentially introducing some new elements.

The black floral roof tops (there are two above) came from a dress that looks distinctly African in design – I may introduce more pieces of that.  The black/teal tie dye was handmade in Africa – I may use more of that.  Once upon a time, I found vintage drawing of bodies squished into the lower deck of a slave ship.  I may transfer those onto fabric and find a way to include.  I may make the whole lower edge a balance sheet, with human beings symbolized as assets.  Who knows yet.

Or maybe I’ll just finish it up, with a new decisive eye.

It doesn’t matter if the idea translates literally into what is pieced and stitched.  What matters for now is that the thoughts provide organizing principles.  Not only do I hope to avoid the endless rearranging that I sometimes fall into, I also hope to make something with a kind of punch that only these sets of thoughts and feelings could provide.