Pace professor’s rediscovery of US slave Harriet Jacobs to climax with new book, Oct. 20 reception

Twenty two years ago, in a room housing mostly-obscure archives, a professor at Pace University chanced on a letter written after the US Civil War by a woman named Harriet Jacobs. The scholar, Jean Fagan Yellin, previously had known Jacobs as a fake. Supposedly, Jacobs (1813-1897) had written a riveting narrative of her life as a slave in North Carolina, but since slaves were kept illiterate, scholars had dismissed the book as nothing more than an abolitionist tract ghosted by the well-known white author listed as the editor. Yellin’s instincts told her differently.

Contact Christopher T. Cory, Pace University Public Information Cell 917 608 8164m ccory@pace.edu

Journalists can obtain a CD of the complete “Papers,” including photos and period cartoons and illustrations, and review copies, from the University of North Carolina Press, Gina_Mahalek@unc.edu, 919-962-0581.

Yellin is available for interviews in person and by telephone in New York through November 21, then in Sarasota, Florida, and in North Carolina November 22 and 23.

PUBLICATON OF “HARRIET JACOBS FAMILY PAPERS” TO CLIMAX REDISCOVERY OF THE SLAVE HARRIET JACOBS BY PACE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR JEAN FAGAN YELLIN

Inspiring narrative once dismissed as ghost-written is now a classic Other Jacobs writings and background materials to be published in definitive edition Nov. 1 by University of North Carolina Press

New York, NY, October 8, 2008 – Twenty two years ago, in a room housing mostly-obscure archives, a professor at Pace University chanced on a letter written after the US Civil War by a woman named Harriet Jacobs. The scholar, Jean Fagan Yellin, previously had known Jacobs as a fake. Supposedly, Jacobs (1813-1897) had written a riveting narrative of her life as a slave in North Carolina, but since slaves were kept illiterate, scholars had dismissed the book as nothing more than an abolitionist tract ghosted by the well-known white author listed as the editor. Yellin’s instincts told her differently.

A literary scholar, she had read Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” and now, as she read the letter, similarities of style and tone began to make her suspect that “Incidents” was written by the same person. That suspicion was the thread that led to the next 22 years of Yellin’s scholarly life, to her rescue of Jacobs from over 100 years of obscurity — and to the discovery of a new American hero. Yellin proved beyond doubt that Jacobs book had indeed been “written by herself,” as its subtitle said. Thanks to Yellin, that book is now a classic and on the reading lists of most American students. Because of Yellin’s advocacy volume (published by Harvard University Press) and her biography (Basic Books), not to mention Jacobs’ eloquence, courage in escaping from a sexually-abusive master, and later work as a social worker, abolitionist and journalist, Jacobs’ story has been told in children’s books, in adaptations for the theater, and on television.

Yellin has established her as an American equal in stature to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Culmination.

On November 1, what one scholar has called Yellin’s “monumental” work on Jacobs’ remarkable life reaches a quiet climax in events marking the publication by the University of North Carolina Press of Yellin’s two-volume, definitive collection of “The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers.”

On Monday, October 20, a New York City reception honoring Yellin’s work and the “Papers” will be hosted by Pace University’s English department;

On Saturday, November 22, historical reflections and a reception will go along with a tour led by Yellin of Jacobs haunts in Edenton, North Carolina, the town where Jacobs was enslaved and where her story now is part of the Chamber of Commerce website;

On Sunday, November 23, presentations and a reception will take place at the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Decorative Arts in Wilmington, NC, where Yellin did research. The papers provide new information on Jacobs’ life after her escape; on the fights against slavery, racism and sexism of which she was a significant part; and on Jacobs’ relevance to other issues including refugees and how people emerge from slavery. In 1853 Jacobs wrote to a friend: “God… gave me a soul that burned for freedom and a heart nerved with determination to suffer even unto death in pursuit of that liberty which without, makes life an intolerable burden.” This year, Yellin told a Public Radio interviewer: “To me, what’s most important is that she took hold of her life and she had self-respect and a sense of selfhood, and that she thought she could control her life even within limits. And she thought she could sort of help change the world. And she did. “Often, we feel powerless – certainly, pregnant 16-year-old girls seem to feel pretty powerless. And to think that she accomplished that is, to me, quite amazing. She ends up a completely self-respecting woman.”

For 102 years Pace University has produced “professionals who think” by providing high quality professional education resting on a firm base of liberal learning amid the advantages of the New York metropolitan area. A private university, Pace has campuses in New York City and Westchester County, New York, enrolling more than 13,000 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in its Lubin School of Business, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Law School, Lienhard School of Nursing, School of Education, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. www.pace.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *