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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Harriet Jacobs and the horror of slave auctions

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, one of the first-person memoirs collected in Slave Narratives, was published 150 years ago this month. Particularly chilling is her description of when she witnessed a slave auction:
On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.
The anniversary of the publication of Incidents happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the allegedly final slave auction held in St. Louis—an event depicted in a painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble recently posted on the blog of the Missouri State Museum, which adds, “History shows otherwise; in fact, auctions continued into 1864 in St. Louis.” The 1861 auction was also the focus of a recent reenactment cosponsored by the National Park Service and the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation; the ensuing controversy and emotions provoked by the commemoration are discussed at The St. Louis Beacon, Civil War MemoryBlack Voices, and Yesterday. . .and Today.

Related LOA works: Slave Narratives; The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

1 comment:

  1. Harriet Jacobs' book is a powerful commentary on how unlimited power corrupted the slave owners and their families. Her words are relevant today for anyone seeking to understand how unbalanced relationships lead to cruelty--I think she would see the burqua as another set of chains.


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