Harriet Jacobs’ Crawl Space: A Strange Space of a Production of Blackness
(This is a section of a larger paper entitled ” Reconstructing Blackness: Listening to the Slave Narratives.”)
Imagine being hidden in a small crawl space for seven years while simultaneously hearing the unimaginable without clear visibility and knowledge of who said the information. This was the fate of Harriet Jacobs as she hides from the slave masters in her attempt to escape from slavery. She has positioned herself in this little room, that was added on to her grandmother’s house, with the intention of staying there until it was safe enough for her to transition to another location. While stationed in this make-shift crawl space, Jacobs is hidden from everyone. She has the ability to hear what everyone is saying about her but is not afforded the opportunity to speak back to them. Constantly and consistently, she is left wrestling with her own feeling of doubt and insignificance as she hears the words of those she loves and trust. She hears the voices of her children as they play and friends as they walk by. Furthermore, she hears the voices of those who are also still hunting for her capture. This crawl space serves as a sacrificial space for listening. Jacobs is required to isolate herself from others in order to produce the liberation that she is seeking for her children and herself.
The crawl space deafens itself as a space where identity becomes discarded. No longer is Jacobs a human, but she is stolen, or misplaced property. In retrospect, she was never considered a human as a slave but the crawl space deafens her humanity in a peculiar sense. Potentially, the crawl space makes here indiscernible while simultaneously choking the ability to be a courageous voice out of her. This space abolished her humanity as a place for the “discarded.” Ashon Crawley describes Linda’s escape into the crawl space as a powerful love ethic while critiquing a system that would incite a woman to devise such a plan. Crawley writes,
“Not a celebration of the conditions of emergence that demanded her being discarded — that would be quite vulgar — but a celebration of the love that the peculiar institution was to have interdicted, a love she was not to have or hold that prompted her desire for escape, a love as the grounds for her desire to give care.”
Therefore, Linda’s discarded body produces a love ethic within that crawl space that is a seminal effort toward reconstructing her own Black womanhood. Every production of freedom that Jacobs was implementing was predicated upon the liberation of her children and reconstructing of her Black womanhood. Tamura Lomax echoes this thought in Jezebel Unhinged, when she writes, “Harriet Jacobs, who found joy in her children’s freedom while confined to her grandmother’s attic and who chose a white male sexual partner not for love or even pleasure but as a liberative act…” The crawl space served as an obtuse space for transition — a place where enslavement and securement of one’s identity collide. But, it was structured by the “intentional” planning for freedom of Jacobs.
Though the crawl space inhabitation was the direct result of dehumanizing and discarding; it, nevertheless, registers her identity and ability to overcome. Those seven years spent in the crawl space hearing others, but not audibly being able to communicate back the love, appreciation, and pain, reshaped her in meaningful ways. The structured pause that is relegated to the crawl space forces Jacobs to listen. A type of listening that is grounded in receiving information rather than processing for a response. The slave narratives yield this radical form of listening that reconfigures the normal purview of liberation.
As Harriet Jacobs envisions her day of escape, while postured in the uncomfortable location of the crawl space, she is also within an earshot of her loved ones and those seeking her demise. Thus, making listening a skilled intellectual practice of survival. I am not sure if the term makes/making is even a decent word to incorporate in such an incident. Makes/making implies there is personal construction that is being incorporated within this production. What Jacobs makes is not out of a need of flourishing, but “a make” that is produced out of a need to survive. Consequently, what she is hearing is for the sole purpose of securing her identity; it is not an aimless pursuit of information gathering to build an argument.
Yes, there is a choice of escaping but it was done from a sense of survival that is more conducive of an un-making rather than some euphoric right that is implied with making. Therefore, Jacobs was un-making slavery as she labored in the crawl space. The more things that she heard while she was in that crawl space the more her identity concretized. The crawl space required here to listen as a form of resistance. Jacobs is cutting against the grain in order to do what she believes in best for herself and her children. This is not taking extremely well by her family but there is an obvious appreciation for her courage and bravery. This is ultimately the lessons that must be learned through reading of the slave narratives — listening to the stories of a gifted people and experiencing the inspired genius. The slave narratives unearth stories of trauma repositioning Black people as the power brokers of strength in a system where metastatic evil was normalized.
Jacobs is positioned in a space that is not conducive for the human body, but, comparatively, gives herself respite from the abuse that she has to endure as an enslaved woman. The mere fact she must conceal herself in the crawl space is dehumanization and abusive. However, she is engaged in an act of resistance that is fortifying her identity. Jacobs is reshaping the crawl space into a place of rehabilitation for her soul. No longer does she have to endure the unwanted advances of the slave master or his harsh words. She has made a decision that reflects her directional movement toward trying to flourish instead of existing. How she is reconstructing life from within this small space, that socially would label her body as discarded for such an act, redefines freedom. Though the crawl space is the epitome of the “darkness total,” Jacobs is invested in the crawl space. Jacobs proclaims, “I had a woman’s pride, a mother’s love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should arise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.” The crawl space provided a clearing that allowed her to experience life though she could not actively participate. I am thinking of Toni Morrison’s idea of The Clearing in Beloved as Baby Suggs preaches during those gathered moments.The clearing represented a space where Black folks were expected to enjoy their identity and the crawl space is a space where identity thrived to be experienced. Both places were spaces where Black listening was required for the liberation of Black bodies. Ultimately, how they listened and invested, in Black life, in those moments cultivated a joy and produced liberation.
Though the crawl space was not an ideal situation, it metamorphosed into a secure location that would eventually become a bulwark of resistance. The crawl space provided concealment from the hunters, but afforded Jacobs the opportunity to sonically be invested in the lives of her children. The everyday things that can be taken for granite are now the precious sounds that solidify here existence. Whether it is the rain upon the tin roof or the sound of birds in the morning, the forsaken sounds are life giving moments. What she experiences sonically becomes heightened through the seven years, as her vision is impaired because of the concealment. Therefore, nothing is wasted or ignored because it becomes a part of the never-ending jigsaw puzzle that is pieced together, mentally, as she sits in this crawl space. Listening becomes Jacobs’ way of living, as she muses through life in that crawl space. She forces life to be previewed through a sonic lens, then translated into a perceptual image. This apprehends Baldwin’s perspective of Ray Charles as he was captivated by his presence. There was a noticeable difference in Ray Charles’ perception that mesmerized Baldwin, and I make the claim: this perception begins to evolve in Jacobs as well. She becomes acutely aware of the environment and how that type of shift determines certain perceptual cues.
The time in the crawl space heighten her perceptual proclivities to the point where here surroundings began to take life. The sound of rain, thunder and laughter of her family produce an irruption that previously were just episodic noise. Now these sounds triggered a lifeforce. The sounds were emblematic of a “performative irruption” that she imagined were being lived out, existentially, as she is ontologically static.These were natural occurrences that she had to imagine, cerebrally, because she was not afforded the luxury of viewing them outside of the crawl space. Though she is hidden away in the crawl space the sounds activated a memory of the familiar which provided her with the fortitude to continual through the struggle. Jacobs speaks of not knowing rather it was day or night because she was concealed from the sunlight but “I knew it only by the noises I heard…” Like Ray Charles, Jacobs’ sensitivity to the sonic movements of the days, indicated what was transpiring within the moment. She was being transformed by the sounds she was hearing instead of the sights she was seeing; listening, became her of way seeing. Though she was trapped in utter darkness, her ears began to develop the imagery she needed to construct a flourishing space — space where survival subsumes cavalier notions of giving up.
The crawl space represents a creative patience that is needed when one must listen. As you read the slave narratives, and, especially, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one must be willing to wrestle with: what is heard while in the crawl space. The crawl space presented a special function that captured the freedom of life. Listening becomes an inevitable practice, within the crawl space, that one must succumb to in order to survive, properly. The crawl space concealment was not something that had to be executed in order for Jacobs to live, but it was necessary in order for her to flourish. The crawl space was a liberative path. It provided Jacobs with a means of identity that was not readily available as a slave girl. The crawl space was an abandonment of insularity for the white world. Jacobs’ Fanonian approach to destroying a colonialist mentality of slavery: “We understand now why the black [wo]man cannot take pleasure in [her] insularity. For [her] there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.” Jacobs chooses the crawl space as an affirmation of her Blackness and freedom rather than the whiteness embedded in the capitalism of slavery. Secondly, the crawl space placed her in a space where she was forced to listen as a means of negotiating the day. In this “loophole of retreat,” Jacobs would strengthen herself daily through the joys of hearing her children playing outside. Life was produced in the rapturous moments of hearing the sounds of those she solemnly placed her body in harm’s way in order to establish a better example of being. She understood that a simple movement, at the wrong time of day, could mean disaster, not just for her but her entire family. Thirdly, listening gave her a reason to live because it gave her an opportunity to hear her children and family. Thus, listening provided her with a regiment that lead to survival. Though the outcome may appear similar, the approach is different when it comes to means and opportunity. One implies a form of work (means) and the other, a form of leisure (opportunity). Although Jacobs is listening to her children the reasoning for each may have been different: one day she may have needed to be reminded of her reasoning for entering the crawl space while on another day she just needed to be inspired through their sounds.
What is gleaned through this crawl space episode is that creative patience produces an insight for survival. Creative patience is the ability to find ways to wait and listen. This is needed because the slave narratives avail themselves to the reader as a means of radical subjectivity that forces the reader to re-construct or re-think history. The lessons learned through the intellectual practice of listening produces a residual ethic that pushes the culture to excel. The crawl space where Jacobs is hideaway exemplifies such a space. Listening became an act of resistance that stimulated the survival of Jacobs and lead to a new production of life for her children. The crawl space image presents a complex tension where listening within unstable scenarios manufacture solutions that provide concrete objectives to outdated practices.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Dover Publications, originally Published in 1862, reprinted 2001
Ashon Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017., 151.
Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath, 152
Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.,80.
Jacobs, Incidents, 96
Jacobs, Incidents, 73
Toni Morrison, Beloved,New York: First Vintage International, 1987., 113.
Crawley, Blackpentecostal, 137.
Jacobs, Incidents, 97
Franz Fanon, Black Skin, Black Masks, translated from French by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 1952.,33.
Jacobs, Incidents, 95.
Stacey M. Floyd-Thompson, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006., 116.
I came to the conclusion, yesterday, that I am hyper-masculine. There is this constructed sense of male bravado that governs my life. When love is extended to me by my wife or daughter, I tend to pull away with extreme countermeasures –a simple form of affection becomes a sacred place of tension. Where did this thinking come from? I am not sure…
As I read through some of the phenomenal womanist and feminist works, I am challenged by all the hyper-masculinity that is so easily spewed in American culture. America tends to isolate men in a space of invulnerability. One’s manhood is in question when that man starts to appreciate the humanity of another; violence has become a distinction of what manhood entails; money has become one of the primal characteristics of what being a man represents.
I tried to model myself after those false attributes of what a man should resemble. I overlooked the humanity of other people when it jeopardize my manhood; my reflection were always laden with metaphors of violence; I thought money was the answer to all problems. What I found was that the roads of such a journey are tainted with tragedy?
When life hands you a mirror and says take a look, the staggering blow of hypocrisy looms large. No longer can you deny the myth and façade that has become the norm in your life. You must now come to terms with the sexist, homophobic and prejudice person that you are. Being in community with women and the LGTBQ community gave me a sense of reality that had previously been detoured from my life. No longer was my hyper –masculine default viable.
There were questions that were asked that challenged me to be better: Do I always agree with my womanist and feminist sisters; no! Do I always agree with the LGBTQ community; no! Do I always agree with white men; no? But, I learned to grow in community in spite of our differences.
Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without. – William Sloane Coffin
When the Voiceless Speak
Dear Lot by Jaha Zainabu (this sister changed my thoughts about Lot)
There had to be disgust, a righteous indignation that wrecked havoc in the heart of Lot’s wife (Lotty). Can you imagine what it is like to be helpless as others offer up your children to save strangers? This is the very thing that, Lotty had to endure in Genesis 19. The angels showed up and inform them that they had to leave because the Lord was going to “destroy this place.” (Genesis 19:13)
However, it is Dr. Renita Weems in here passionate letter, My Daughter, My Self who takes the opportunity to highlight some particular points about this little meeting with the angels. This posthumous, after the fact letter gives us a perspective of what Lotty might have been thinking during this process:
The angel had come to us in the middle of the night, urging us to flee for our lives, warning us against looking back. I remember grabbing both your hands, running for my life, running away from Sodom, praying that I could get the two of you out of there in time, wondering too myself exactly what it was we were running from. No one ever said why were fleeing. Not your father. Not even the angels. I was just told to flee. And so I fled- with the two of you at my side.
That sounds more like a responsible mother than an unfaithful servant of God.
It is problematic that, Lotty has no voice throughout this passage of scripture. We are left defining her by her actions and not by her character. We are left defining her by preconceived notions and not by her character. Consequently, we thus render her powerless. Lotty becomes the new “construct of media blackout.” What do I mean when I say, “construct of media blackout?” What I mean is that Lotty should be made front page news but she becomes an afterthought for media hype. The only time after this episode Lotty is mentioned is when Jesus reintroduces her with the famous words, “Remember Lot’s Wife.” Isn’t it amazing that something so heinous can happen but no one says a thing?
For close to a month, 300 hundred girls from Nigeria were kidnapped and no one really cared. They were written off as just three hundred little black girls with no voices. Then a few people got on Twitter and started using the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls. These twitter feeds sparked a movement that caused others to move on behalf of the voiceless –300 hundred little black girls –all because of a sign.
Notably, in the Genesis 19, we find Lotty leaving with her family as they have been instructed but the image is wrong. Verse 26 makes it very apparent that Lotty was “behind her husband.” Here is the second time we find Lotty being more protective of her girls than Lot. A man would make sure that he was in the back to insure that no one would look back and, if someone had to look back it would be him –knowing that looking back was more about protection from those who might give chase than wanting to go back to someplace they had left.
Ironically, it is Dr. Weems who defines this with such clarity as she denotes that Lotty did “not look back…she looked around.” She looked around to make sure no one gave chase. She looked around so no one else could harm her girls because she knew that Lot was more concerned about the angels than his family.
In conclusion, I am sure that I would not have embodied the same fate as Lotty. I, like Lotty, would have looked around for those who might have made it out like my family. The scripture is not clear whether Lot ever told his wife to turn around, but we know for sure that she was turned into a pillar of salt. Lotty becomes the voice of the voiceless. She becomes the hashtag for justice and equality. Yes, Lotty speaks through the pillar of salt saying, “Bring Back our girls.”