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"Singing and Rejoicing"

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More About Harriet Jacobs

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In Memory of Harriet Jacobs, or The Day I Learned to Sing "SING IT, BABY! LOUDER! FEEL THE MUSIC!"


Anita told me to sing, and I did. She is so terrific, so amazing and so cool that if she had asked me to read the entire C entry of the phone book, I would have done so without batting an eyelid. After all, she is the Ambassador of Gullah, the Soul of the Sea Islands and the Queen of Beaufort County. She wears bright colors, stands taller than everyone else, and fills the church with her voice. She's got rhythm and she's bringing the house down!

Anita is making music.
I arrived in South Carolina's St. Helena Island looking for inspiration. My mission was to uncover Gullah (see Kevin's dispatch), but I was secretly hoping to bring Harriet Jacobs to life. Although Harriet passed away over 100 years ago in 1897, she left a legacy that many, if not all, African American women would be proud to carry on. At the First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, Anita and her choir would have made Harriet smile.

Who was Harriet Jacobs and what made her so special? Well, for starters, she wrote a terrific book called "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" that would put any bestseller to shame. It's got it all; love, betrayal, suspense and intrigue. It even has a chase scene! Here's the hook: she was born into slavery in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. At the age of 12, she was sold to Dr. James Norcom, a well-known and respected citizen who became obsessed with her. He tried to make her his mistress, but Harriet refused and eventually became involved with another white man in town in order to keep Dr. Norcom away once and for all. Harriet had two children with this man, called Mr. Sawyer, which infuriated Dr. Norcom. According to the law at the time, children had to "follow the condition of the mother," which meant that if the mother was a slave, so were the children. In other words, they all belonged to Dr. Norcom.

When she was 22, Harriet decided to run away. She had no other choice; if she had stayed, she would've been sent to a plantation and most likely been separated from her children. After escaping, she spent the next seven years living in a tiny space, called a garret, between wooden boards and the roof of her grandmother's shed. Her grandmother, Molly, was a well-respected free black woman in Edenton with many connections. While Harriet was still in hiding, Mr. Sawyer was able to buy their children from Dr. Norcom through a negotiator. When Dr. Norcom found out, he was furious because he presumed they'd be emancipated. In fact, although Mr. Sawyer had promised Harriet he'd do so, he never did and effectively betrayed her trust in him.

After enduring seven years in a space no bigger than nine feet long and seven feet wide, Harriet finally escaped to the north - to the free states. She managed to reunite with her brother (who'd also been owned by Mr. Sawyer) and eventually, with her children. But life wasn't easy. She was still considered a runaway slave, which meant that at any time, she could be captured and sent back to Edenton. Her ordeal only ended when one of the women for whom she worked in New York bought Harriet from the Norcoms and "freed" her. In 1861 she published her book, and proceeded to work for the abolitionist cause. She did not disclose her identity in the book and only in 1981 did scholars authenticate her work as non-fiction.

Oh, but I don't do her justice - Harriet Jacobs ROCKED! Imagine: she pursued an education, wrote and published a book, worked several jobs, and put her children through school, all while running away from her slave master. She was so fed up with her condition, she preferred to spend years holed up in a roof rather than be deemed someone's property. She was an enslaved woman in the 1800s that rebelled against her situation and succeeded against all odds.

I arrived in Edenton hoping to find a museum, a shrine, a statue, or even a gift shop devoted to her and her story. Instead, I found only a marker. All of the places associated with her story have changed and were it not for a map in the back of her book, I wouldn't have found the site where her grandmother's house once stood. I went in search of African American Edenton residents. I stopped men, women and children on the streets and in restaurants, always with the same question, "Have you ever heard of Harriet Jacobs?"

Unfortunately, most hadn't. I asked five African American men of varying ages, and they all said the same thing: "No." Then I asked some women: still, "No." And then, I hit the jackpot. Well, actually, I went to Chicken Kitchen, a popular restaurant in Edenton, and there I found a girl named Crystal who said she learned about Harriet Jacobs the year before when she was in 4th grade. Feeling more hopeful, I ordered some spicy shrimp and struck up a conversation with one of the waitresses, a young woman named Patricia Parks whose great-grandmother was…a Jacobs! Aagghh!! Could it be? Could I have just stumbled upon one of Harriet's descendents? Was Patricia the real deal? Well, she wasn't sure because she had also never heard of Harriet before. But, brimming with excitement, she vowed to find out. I left Edenton with my fingers crossed, wishing Patricia all the best and hoping that somehow the town would be able to resurrect - and embrace - the life of one of its bravest and noblest daughters.

Back in Beaufort, Anita proclaims:


She thunders and raves! She's electric and she's proud! In the Sea Islands of South Carolina, first port of entry for three out of every four slaves, the Gullah culture has found a worthy ally. Anita spends her days visiting schools, teaching Gullah music to students (black and white alike) and making sure that nobody forgets under what circumstances Africans arrived in the United States.

She tells me, and the rest of the First African Baptist choir, about the Shout Rings - a traditional form of singing that enslaved Africans used to practice as a way to "let it all out." As Anita explains, "Everything that was joyous or sad went into music; everything that we had was taken away and the only thing Africans could do at the plantation without permission from the master was to SING!"

And so she sings. Through her songs, she tells stories and keeps her culture alive because, as she put it, "Gullah gave me the stability and self-assurance to instill in me pride in my roots and to hold steady in the storm. I know who I am." For Anita, passing on the seeds of the Gullah experience to the younger generations is crucial because they will be the next keepers of the culture. And she sings not to entertain, but "to heal the heart, because Gullah is a healing thing."

Anita, like Harriet before her, is making sure the stories of her people are not forgotten. Just as Harriet found her voice through writing, Anita uncovered hers through song. With her art, she preserves the rich heritage, culture and past of all African Americans in general and of the Gullah people in particular. She continues to emancipate, picking up where Harriet left off.

I know Harriet has been dead for over a century. But right now, somewhere in the Sea Islands, while Anita sings, Harriet's spirit shines brightly. I feel touched by both.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Long, lazy summer days? Not for these teens!
Kevin - Gullah? A new slang word or a whole other language?
Rebecca - Sacred African burial grounds in Manhattan
Irene - "Great Blacks in Wax": a museum that packs a punch
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!