Three Words

“XII. Fear of Insurrection”

–Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

American literature is such a rich, diverse body of work that it is easy to overlook one of its darker chapters, one that perhaps holds some relevance for current events. We don’t often like to revisit this genre, drenched in an ugly history. But in light of Mary’s post about the poetry of the oppressed, a brief look at the slave narrative seems in order.

There are many slave narratives in our written literature, many more woven only on the tongues of those who lived those narratives. Within our recorded literature, slave narratives can be autobiographical or not, fictional or entirely true. The most famous novel in this genre is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most Americans have probably read about Uncle Tom, or at least been assigned to read about him.

Why not talk about Uncle Tom? Simple. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a white woman as a fictional piece of propaganda for the abolition movement. It’s a powerful story, masterfully written. But it is, if you will, a secondary source. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t write from her own experience. All well and good in fiction. Nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to get into the grittiness of these narratives. I want to explore a true story, one that can’t be brushed off as fiction or exaggerated. Jacobs and the friend who edited her work both attest to the veracity of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs goes to great pains to reassure her reader of the truth of her account throughout the narrative. There is a grim reality to Incidents that is much easier to avoid in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having reread Incidents recently, I found nothing so powerful as this chapter heading I’ve quoted above. There are some beautiful quotes. Jacobs is a raw, honest writer. But what really caught my eye was chapter 12 as a whole and with its title. It’s such an understated title: “Fear of Insurrection.” Three words. But the scene they sum up is such a vivid picture that I couldn’t find just one sentence to quote. The title must suffice.

Think back, will you, to the events of the past couple years. Can you remember the protests? Do you see them still? Do you remember the streets of St. Louis on fire? Can you see the anguish in the faces of mothers who had just buried their boys?

No, you’re right. This isn’t slavery. America has changed. But as we said on Tuesday, “America has not yet been America yet.” There are still dark nights ruled by fear. Fear of the Other. Fear of injustice. Fear of the system. Fear of the darkness.

Perhaps we should not say “united we stand.” Rather, in honesty, we might better echo Jacobs’ words: “fear of insurrection.” But let our present not be our future. Which three words will you be known by?

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