- Harriet Jacobs and the Lessons of Rogue Reading
My contribution to this forum explores how we might apply some of the insights and priorities of scholars working in early African American literary studies to the study of early American print cultures. Literary historians such as Carla L. Peterson, Elizabeth McHenry, and Joycelyn Moody remind us not only that communities of black writers, orators, editors, and readers produced books, newspapers, and pamphlets, but also that members of these communities understood and engaged with print culture in highly sophisticated ways. Moreover, these scholars’ recovery and analysis of black women’s production and consumption of print has inspired me to consider how placing black women at the center of print culture studies offers a method for the broader study of early American newspapers (a focus of my own research).
In one of the numerous scenes of newspaper reading in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (writing as Linda Brent) relates how newspapers’ disposable nature enables her to read a newspaper in a subversive way that would have infuriated its editor. Unwilling to abandon her children in her quest for freedom, Jacobs famously hid for months in the attic of her grandmother’s house, not far from the home of her master, Dr. Norcom (whom in the text she calls Dr. Flint). In seclusion there, Jacobs devised a scheme to mislead Norcom into thinking she had already fled north to divert his attention while she reclaimed her children and made a genuine escape with them. “In order to make him believe that I was in New York,” she writes, “I resolved to write him a letter dated from that place.” Jacobs arranged to have a “trustworthy seafaring person” carry her letter to New York City and “put it in the post office there.” But Jacobs’s plan required some knowledge of New York’s geography so she could include specific street names in her letter. Knowing Norcom’s cunning nature, she worried that anything less than precision and detail might provoke his suspicion and undermine her ruse. Jacobs had no knowledge of New York City and its street names—but Norcom might have—so she asked an accomplice for “a New York paper, to ascertain the names of some of the streets. He run his hand into his pocket,” Jacobs writes, “and said, ‘Here is half a one, that was round a cap I bought of a pedler yesterday.’ I told him the letter would be ready the next evening” (142). [End Page 19]
Jacobs thus obtained half a copy of the New York Herald. This was all she needed. A paper like the Herald would include numerous advertisements with full addresses of actual buildings listed. Wrapped around a hat, this newspaper fragment traveled from New York to North Carolina, finally reaching a slave hoping to escape her master. The newspaper’s very disposability made such a journey possible as not only a tool of community formation but also wonderful wrapping paper. Having obtained a piece of the Herald, Jacobs used this new possession to further her plan for escape. As she writes in her narrative, the newspaper’s editor would have been horrified at having his journal used in such a manner. Although not exactly proslavery, the Herald expressed little love for African Americans and regularly ran editorials attacking black New Yorkers. “For once,” she exclaims, “the paper that systematically abuses colored people, was made to render them a service” (194). By using an issue of that paper, or even half an issue, as a tool for black liberation, Jacobs read the Herald against its intentions.
This episode provides us with a glimpse of how black Americans in general, and black American women in particular, understood and used printed matter in the decades before the Civil War. In her recollection, for example, Jacobs makes use of multiple networks to distribute her own writing and obtain printed materials. Given her coastal location in the North Carolina port city of Edenton and the central role black sailors played in distributing texts like David Walker’s Appeal, Jacobs’s turn to the sea as a conduit for her letter may...