Harriet Jacobs’ Enduring Legacy
By Koritha MitchellSeptember 7, 2023
Read the story here—also featured in LARB Quarterly, no. 38: Earth—then listen to Koritha Mitchell and Michelle Lanier talk to each other about how the practice of engaging with history can help us better engage the present, with Editor-in-Chief Michelle Chihara on LARB Radio Hour.
The first time Koritha Mitchell visited Edenton, North Carolina, she was already more than familiar with the life and work of Harriet Jacobs. She had been teaching Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the first book-length autobiography by a formerly enslaved African American woman, in her classrooms for the past 18 years, and had recently completed a new scholarly edition of the text. Still, when Mitchell arrived in Edenton—the site of Jacobs’s birth and enslavement—she gained an even deeper understanding of the narrative she’d been poring over for so long.
In her essay, “I Was Determined to Remember: Harriet Jacobs and the Corporeality of Slavery’s Legacies,” Mitchell casts light on what we can uncover when we walk the paths of our ancestors and visit the places that we study in person. Guided by professor and public historian Michelle Lanier, Mitchell retraces Jacobs’s steps: she sees the office that once housed Jacobs’s enslaver, the one-inch hole Jacobs carved in a fence so she could spot her children while she was in hiding. “I have long treasured Jacobs’s work,” Mitchell writes, “but it took witnessing and experiencing Michelle’s embodied intellectual rigor for me to truly commune with Jacobs’s dynamic legacy.”
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