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Fugitive Slave Harriet Jacobs: "Coming Up For Air"

For seven years, Harriet Jacobs hid out in an attic to escape slavery. Here, an excerpt from her powerful autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

"Slavery is terrible for men but it is far more terrible for women," wrote escaped slave Harriet Jacobs (1818-1896) in her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written under the name Linda Brent. At age 15, Jacobs began resisting the sexual advances of her master, Dr. Flint. Even when Jacobs had two children with another man, Flint pursued her.

Unable to find safe passage north, Jacobs fled to the house of her grandmother, a freed slave who lived nearby and took care of Jacobs' children. Hidden from everyone — even her children, Ellen and Benny, who had been bought out of slavery — Jacobs spent 7 years hidden in a cramped attic at her grandmother's home.

Finally reaching the North in 1851, Jacobs published an account of her ordeal with the help of abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. For both women, the book was a political effort to help "sisters in bondage." They hoped it would stop Northerners from sending escaped slaves back South to what Jacobs said was a "loathsome den of corruption and cruelty."

 

Coming Up for Air, by Harriet Jacobs

A small shed had been added to my grandmother's house years ago. Some boards were laid across the supports at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small attic, never occupied by anything but rats and mice. The attic was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest point was three feet high. There was no admission for either light or air. My uncle Phillip, who was a carpenter, had very skillfully made a concealed trap door, which communicated with a storeroom.

To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling; the darkness, total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them.

I knew morning only by the noises I heard. In my small den, day and night were all the same. I suffered for air even more than for light. But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children. There was joy, and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow. How I longed to speak to them! I was eager to look on their faces; but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep.

The Lesser of Evils

This continued darkness was oppressive. It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after day. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave. I was never cruelly overworked; I was never lacerated with the whip from head to foot; I was never so beaten and bruised that I could not turn from one side to the other; I never had my heel-strings cut to prevent my running away; I was never chained to a log and forced to drag it about, while I toiled in the fields from morning till night; I was never branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds. But though my life in slavery was comparatively devoid of hardships, God pity the woman who is compelled to lead such a life!

My food was passed to me through the trapdoor my uncle had contrived. My grandmother, uncle, and aunt would seize such opportunities as they could to chat with me at the opening. But of course this was not safe in the daytime. It must all be done in darkness.

Taking a Breath

It was impossible for me to move in an erect position, so I crawled about my den for exercise. One day I hit my head against something, and found it was a small tool for drilling. My uncle had left it sticking there when he made the trapdoor. I said to myself, "Now I will have some light. Now I will see my children." I bored one hole about an inch long and an inch broad. I sat by it till late into the night to enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in. In the morning I heard the merry laugh of children, and presently two faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there. I longed to tell them I was there!

The heat of my den was intense, for nothing but thin shingles protected me from the scorching summer's sun. But I had my consolations. Aunt Nancy brought me all the news she could hear at Dr. Flint's. From her I learned that the doctor had written to New York to a colored woman, who had been born and raised in our neighborhood. He offered her a reward if she could find out anything out about me. He soon after started for New York in haste, saying to his family that he had important business.

Too Close for Comfort

Autumn came, with a pleasant abatement of heat. My eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, and by holding my book or work in a certain position near the opening I managed to read and sew. That was a great relief to the tedious monotony of my life. But when winter came, the cold penetrated through the thin shingle roof, and I was dreadfully chilled. The kind grandmother brought me bedclothes and warm drinks. Often I was obliged to lie in bed all day to keep comfortable; but with all my precautions, my shoulders and feet were frostbitten. Oh, those long, gloomy days, with no object for my eye to rest upon, and no thoughts to occupy my mind, except the dreary past and the uncertain future!

I was thankful when there came a day sufficiently mild for me to wrap myself up and sit at the loophole to watch the passersby. Southerners have the habit of stopping and talking in the streets, and I heard many conversations not intended to meet my ears. Several times I heard allusions to Dr. Flint, myself, and the history of my children. The opinion was often expressed that I was in the Free States. Very rarely did anyone suggest that I might be in the vicinity. Had the least suspicion rested on my grandmother's house, it would have been burned to the ground. But it was the last place they thought of.

Seven Years of Solitude

Dr. Flint and his family repeatedly tried to coax and bribe my children to tell something they had heard about me. One day the doctor took them into a shop, and offered them some bright little silver pieces and gay handkerchiefs if they would tell where their mother was. Ellen shrank away from him, and would not speak; but Benny said, "Dr. Flint, I don't know where my mother is. I guess she's in New York. When you go there again, I wish you'd ask her to come home, for I want to see her, but if you put her in jail, or tell her you'll cut her head off, I'll tell her to go right back."

I lived in that dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. My body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul.

Countless were the nights that I sat at the loophole scarcely large enough to give me a glimpse of one twinkling star. There, I heard the patrols and slave-hunters conferring together about the capture of runaways, knowing how rejoiced they would be to catch me.

Season after season, year after year, I peeped at my children's faces, and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, "Your mother is here." Sometimes it appeared to me as if ages had rolled away since I entered upon that gloomy, monotonous existence. At times I was stupefied and listless; at other times I became very impatient to know when these dark years would end and I should again be allowed to feel the sunshine and breathe the air.

My restlessness increased. I had lived too long in bodily pain and anguish of spirit. Always I was in dread that slavery would succeed in snatching my children from me. This thought drove me nearly frantic. At last Providence opened an unexpected way for me escape. My friend Peter came one evening and asked to speak with me. "Your day has come, Linda," said he. "I have found a chance for you to go to the Free States."

Free at Last

The anticipation of being a free woman provided almost too much for my weak frame. I made busy preparations for my journey, and for my children to follow me. Grandmother stole up to me as often as possible to whisper words of counsel. She insisted upon my writing to Dr. Flint as soon as I arrived in the Free States and asking him to sell me to her. She said she would sacrifice her house, and all she had in the world, for the sake of having me safe with my children in any part of the world. I resolved that not another cent of her hard earnings should be spent to pay rapacious slaveholders for what they called their property.

I was to escape in a vessel; but I forbear to mention any particulars.

On the day of my departure I made arrangements to go on board at dusk. The intervening time I resolved to spend with my son. I had not spoken to him for seven years, through I had been under the same roof and seen him every day. It was an agitating interview for both of us.

Mother and Child Reunion

After we had talked and wept together for a little while, he said, "Mother, I'm glad you're going away. I wish I could go with you. I knew you were here, and I have been so afraid they would come and catch you!"

I was greatly surprised and asked him if he ever mentioned his suspicions to his sister. He said he never did, but he had kept a close lookout for Dr. Flint, and if he saw him speak to a constable, or a patrol, he always told Grandmother. I now recollected that I had seen Benny manifest uneasiness when people were on my side of the house. Such prudence may seem extraordinary in a boy of 12 years, but slaves, being surrounded by mysteries, deceptions, and dangers, early learn to be suspicious and watchful, and prematurely cautious and cunning.

I told Benny I was now really going to the Free Sates, and if he was a good, honest boy, and a loving child to his dear old grandmother, the Lord would bless him and bring him to me, and we and Ellen would live together.

 

 

Adapted from Scholastic Search

  • Subjects:
    Civil Rights, Slavery, Underground Railroad, Abolition, Civics and Government, African American, Human Rights, Women's History and Experience, Black History Month, Women's History Month
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