Discussion Leader: Dr. Meredith Farmer and Kennon Later
Harriet Jacobs is a woman who was enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina, less than four hours from Wake Forest’s campus. After years of being sexually harassed and physically abused by her owner, she managed to escape, finding her way to freedom—but only after spending seven years hiding in an attic in a space so small, she wasn’t able to stand up. Eventually, Jacobs managed to write what is widely seen as the most important slave narrative ever written by a woman. And while, of course, her autobiography is useful for learning about slavery in the cutting and painful, unforgettable ways that a deeply personal first-person narrative can help us learn, it is ultimately Jacobs’ own story or a way of intentionally situating her identity. And yet: this story is not titled A Narrative in the Life of Harriet Jacobs. Instead, it offers Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl. Here Jacobs’ identity is subsumed by the category “slave girl,” which emphasizes both her vulnerability and the degree to which her story could have been so many other people’s stories. Jacobs, in turn, offers an account of her life that is all about community. And she wrote not just to share her story but to present it in a way that would be the most effective in combating slavery. Discussing an autobiography requires readers to think and learn about an author’s various communities, the ways that those communities shape deeply intersectional identities, and the ways that these complex identities become mobilized in texts that are meant to do cultural work and not just tell a story. So following Jacobs’ lead, in discussing this text we will think about not just identity but its representation, or its relationship to categories that are both meaningful and incomplete.
My name is Dr. Meredith Farmer. I’m an Assistant Teaching Professor of English and the brand new Department of Environment and Sustainability. As a teacher and scholar my focus is on the nineteenth century in America—and the ways that it shaped our present moment. Most of my published work is on Herman Melville, but my current research and teaching interests are the history of slavery in our community here in Winston-Salem (you can see related student work at hiddentown.org) and the ways that rhetoric about the environment back in the nineteenth century helped lead to our current climate crisis.
My name is Kennon Later. I am a junior here at Wake Forest with an English and psychology double major and philosophy minor. When I am not studying, I enjoy reading, horseback riding, and driving fast cars. I am so excited to welcome you all to campus in the fall!