Dramatic telling of slave's life deserves attention


By Reggie Ponder

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Among the colder months, February is probably my favorite. December is wonderful, what with Christmas and all, but February brings

Valentine's Day, my son's birthday, the Super Bowl this year, and Black History Month.

I am an avowed fan of Black History Month despite its array of critics both black and white. Some blacks argue it's counterproductive to

segregate black history into its own month while some whites are critical of spending an entire month focused specifically on black history.

But as I said, I'm a fan. If nothing else the month lends itself to events that highlight important events and leaders who otherwise might

not get much attention.

The public libraries in both Edenton and Elizabeth City have held interesting Black History Month programs over the years. During the four

years I was editor of the Chowan Herald in Edenton I learned much about Harriet Jacobs, who escaped from slavery in Edenton and

became an accomplished author.

Jacobs's "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is one of the best slave narratives to ever see the light of day.

Jacobs's book is often compared to other examples of the slave narrative genre but it differs from many of the others because of its

brilliant artistry. Jacobs employs all the tools of a novelist --dramatic tension, character development, rich description of scenery,

careful narrative pacing -- and in fact the work was published as a "novel."

Because of the use of the tools of a fiction writer and the publication as a novel, some have sought to question whether

"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is indeed a factual slave narrative or whether it instead is a true work of fiction in the fullest sense.

I side with those who deem it a historical novel but who also understand it as solidly grounded in fact. Jacobs takes her lived experience

and turns it into a page-turner in the style of the Victorian novel.

The cruelty Jacobs suffered is horrifying, and her work helped people outside the American South better understand what slaves

were suffering here.

In addition, Jacobs's literary art establishes her as an outstanding American writer of the period. As a writer myself I marvel at Jacobs's

knack for pacing and her gift for dramatic storytelling. I consider Jacobs one of the great American writers of the 1800s, and I'm glad that

Black History Month provides an avenue to recall her legacy and celebrate it.

Reggie Ponder is staff writer for The Daily Advance and editor of Albemarle Magazine.