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PACE UNIVERSITY SCHOLAR JEAN FAGAN YELLIN
WINS $100,000 FORD FOUNDATION GRANT
TO FINISH EDITING PAPERS BY FUGITIVE SLAVE
WHOSE BOOK SHE HELPED MAKE A CLASSIC
Compilation on Harriet Jacobs
is expected to advance teaching and scholarship,
help rescue personal voice of slave women from oblivion.
NEW YORK, NY — January 27, 2004 –Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), the fugitive slave who wrote the landmark memoir “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself,” is the only African-American woman held in slavery whose papers are known to exist.
Fifteen years ago, against the prevailing judgment, Jean Fagan Yellin, a Pace University professor of English, established that Jacobs’s book indeed was “written by herself,” as its subtitle announces, and not by Lydia Maria Child, a white abolitionist writer whose authorship commentators had long assumed. In 1988, Yellin published an edition of “Incidents” with Harvard University Press and the book soon became a classic, used in thousands of college and high school courses on American history and literature and in ethnic, women’s and American studies.
Now the Ford Foundation has awarded a grant of $100,000 to Yellin and her staff to support completion of a two-volume edition of Harriet Jacobs’s papers, which the University of North Carolina Press has contracted to publish.
The grant comes at a time when Yellin’s scholarship is being recognized in other ways. Now a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Pace, her biography of Jacobs, “Harriet Jacobs: A Life,” has been published this month by Basic Civitas Books. The January/February issue of “Humanities,” the bimonthly publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities, carries an article on the Jacobs papers and PBS will air a documentary featuring Harriet Jacobs in October 2004.
A voice for generations. “Histories cannot be written, nor films produced, nor curricula developed which express the historic pluralism of our national culture until the words and acts of African-American women held in slavery are heard,” Yellin said. “Without the Harriet Jacobs papers, millions of nineteenth-century African-American women would remain without a voice.”
David A. Caputo, the political scientist who is president of Pace, said, “Jean Yellin’s rigorous scholarship has helped change the perceptions of entire generations.”
He added: “Pace’s administrators and supporters, Jean Yellin’s faculty colleagues, and her many students over the years should feel honored to have played their roles in supporting her contributions. Her work has increased our understanding of history and thereby strengthened the basis for increasing opportunity in this country and around the world.”
Yellin was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for “Women and Sisters: the Anti-Slavery Feminists in American Culture” (1990), and is the editor of several definitive editions of classic nineteenth century American texts including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as well as Jacobs’s “Incidents.”
“Incidents” is studied abroad as a major work of American literature, with translations in French, German, Portuguese and Japanese. In the U.S., “Books in Print” currently lists 18 editions of Jacobs’s narrative. Yellin’s 1987 Harvard University Press edition alone has sold more than 200,000 copies.
More information on the Harriet Jacobs Project is at www.harrietjacobspapers.org .
Genesis of the Papers project. Shortly after publishing the Harvard edition of “Incidents,” Yellin discovered a series of letters Jacobs had written from the South during the Civil War and began work on the biography. She soon learned that Jacobs was actively involved in reform movements before, during and after the Civil War, especially abolitionism, feminism, and southern Reconstruction. Both Jacobs’ brother and her daughter were movement activists: he lectured with Frederick Douglass, she with Susan B. Anthony.
The wide range of materials Yellin turned up inspired her to undertake the “Papers” project. In 1995, she received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for College Teachers, and more recently the papers project has received additional NEH funding and has been named a “We the People Project.” Other funding has come from Pace University, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the University of North Carolina Press, the UNC Center for the Study of the American South, and the UNC Libraries. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission has endorsed it.
The collection now encompasses approximately 600 items, housed in various archives in the U.S. and England. The new funds will pay for the remaining cataloguing and annotating, scheduled for completion in 2005.
“His”tory Lesson. The staff includes Kate Culkin, associate editor in residence at Pace, and Joseph Thomas, associate dean of Caldwell College, who is advisory editor. Culkin said, “The knowledge of Jacobs’s life and work, which the Harriet Jacobs Papers will dramatically enhance, enriches our understanding of gender, identity, pluralism and social change. It will foster new curriculums that illustrate minority women as academic subjects, students, teachers, citizens and activists.”
According to Yellin, the papers demonstrate that “antislavery discourse was not all about race and slavery, but also about identity and gender; and that feminist discourse was not all about sexuality and gender, but also about race and slavery. They excavate historic grassroots networks for social change, displaying the connections and disjunctions between black and white reformers and between race and gender reformers.”
“This story is central in our history and culture; it is the story of struggle for human fulfillment that we continue to address in our lives today.”
Less hearsay, more scholarship. The availability of the papers promises a constructive change in several academic disciplines. Publication of the papers will empower faculty members across the country, who have been unable to guide students responsibly into research areas that lacked basic primary materials, to encourage the study of nineteenth-century women of color. It also is likely to inspire young scholars to undertake such studies.
Yellin said, “This will encourage students of color at every level to enter a history in which they have been absent except by hearsay.”
Yellin and the project are affiliated with Pace’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, which offers majors in the humanities and has primary responsibility for the general education (core curriculum) of all baccalaureate students at the University. The project is affiliated most closely with the publishing program and with the English department, in which Yellin taught for many years. It has strong ties to the history department and the University’s Pforzheimer Honors College, which have supplied most of the Pace student interns who have worked on the papers. The project also has attracted eager graduate students from other campuses.
Yellin’s work on Jacobs is particularly relevant to Pace and its motto of “opportunitas.” The comprehensive, independent university is committed to opportunity, teaching and learning, civic involvement and measurable outcomes. Pace has eight campuses, including downtown and midtown New York City, Pleasantville, Briarcliff, White Plains (a graduate center and law school) and a Hudson Valley Center located at Stewart Airport near Newburgh, N. Y. More than 14,000 students are enrolled in undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lubin School of Business, School of Computer Science and Information Systems, School of Education, Lienhard School of Nursing and Pace Law School. (www.pace.edu)