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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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…”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]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.[8]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…”[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.

[1]Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Dover Publications, originally Published in 1862, reprinted 2001

 

[2]Ashon Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017., 151.

 

[3]Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath, 152

 

[4]Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.,80.

[5]Jacobs, Incidents, 96

 

[6]Jacobs, Incidents, 73

 

[7]Toni Morrison, Beloved,New York: First Vintage International, 1987., 113.

[8]Crawley, Blackpentecostal, 137.

 

[9]Jacobs, Incidents, 97

 

[10]Franz Fanon, Black Skin, Black Masks, translated from French by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 1952.,33.

 

[11]Jacobs, Incidents, 95.

 

[12]Stacey M. Floyd-Thompson, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006., 116.

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Living Behind the Prepared Moment

Every time I write something my goal is that it unsettles the reader to make a change or causes them to think. I also write with the hope that this piece will be the one that opens the door for me to do my work. Yes, I love to help people and writing gives me the opportunity to think through troubling issues. But, I also write every post expecting that the words will become a catalyst for me to make new moves.

I am sure that many of you feel the same way but in different arenas. You have been writing, singing, studying and a myriad of other things for years. Always expecting that today will be the moment that God opens up the door for you to move in the space that you feel you were created to thrive. You have sacrificed and stayed up late nights to prepare yourself for moments that never seem to come.

You see your friends getting the very opportunities that you know you can do (just as well , if not better) but for some reason you never get the chance. You enjoy their success and celebrate with them but in the back your mind you still wonder-God when is my chance. You never stop preparing or doing the work but it has to play second to the realness of accountability- you have children that need to eat, a spouse that is looking for you to uphold your side of the financial weight, bill that have to be paid. You actually see work as a distraction from the essence of what you feel God has called you too. You thus manufacture moments that have similarities to God’s promises but does not have the staying power of his ordained issued promises.

This is when you realize you are are stuck behind the prepared moment.

This is the moment when faith becomes real instead of a theological construct. This is the time when God has your attention instead of the work having your attention. You have been doing what you know to fulfill the drive and passion that lies within you but you envisioned so much more than what is manifesting. Here is when you keep doing the work and keep being an example of the grace of God whether you feel it or not.

The “prepared moment” is a kairotic moment that is levied on the purpose of God. You must understand that you do not have the vantage point that God does which gives him the a much better perspective than you do.

I declare that it is not an easy journey but it is a necessary as we trek through the landmines of life. When the journey is complete and we look back on the times when were stuck behind the prepared moment we will quickly say, “I wish I had more time”

So I leave you with 4 things:

  • embrace the the process
  • continue doing the work
  • finish strong
  • stay ready

I am stuck behind a prepared moment…

Disjointed Imago Dei (Image of God) Part 4 – Embodying a Race, Religion and Rhetoric Ethos

I struggle to write many times the very feelings that plague me mentally and spiritually. It is at the expense of being labeled that oftentimes I ruminate instead of write. The constant juxtaposing through worldviews can lead to intense levels of ambiguity for others but a since of clarity for me.

Let me try to explain.

My burgeoning Pan-African worldview is reshaping my perspective through a theological lens. My warped reformed theology is locked in a cage with my real life connection with Black Theology of Liberation (BTL). I not only study BTL, I must live it in thess yet to be United States of (a)merica . It is mildly impossible for a black male not to readily identify with BTL because it is their lives being played out in stereo.

I wrestle with the premise that the very natures of white men are evil. (That is the product of 39 years of racism.) I know that the actions of a few do not equal the sum-total of the whole but therein lays the place of tension-reconciling racism to be dead. Racism has shaped my theology more than I realize most of the time. The construct of racism has such blooming possibilities of evil that never lie dormant. It takes the beautification of God to reconstruct the image of those who have oppressed and have been oppressed to re-activate in such a racial climate.

But my theological lens-though warped by my reformed theology-places me at the feet of a God who extends grace. So I am forced through my understanding of BTL to redirect my angst toward the plight of “the least of these”-regardless of race. It is within those spaces where I find that my warped reformed theology finds the most solace and purpose. It is within this context that the expansion of God’s sovereignty begins to trump the very essence of “big problems/issues.” Those big problems/issues become small miracles in the hand of a sovereign God who predestined a graceful finish within my life as well as others. But it is BTL that highlights those ills with a robust sense of urgency that my reformed theology would overlook.

What the Pan-African worldview does in to bring a glocal perspective that makes me view people through a global lens but act locally. The plight of Africa for the Pan African sits as the centerpiece of success- as Africa goes so goes the world. The struggle is not to isolate one people group above another but show the importance and inter-working of all. This inter-working concept unlocks the presence of Hip Hop in my perspective. The subculture of Hip Hop has the ability to transcend racial barriers by connecting people through the flavor of the music. This calculated amalgamation is phenomenon that has mystified many scholars and theologians. This connection with the funk is a communal effort that reconnects back to a Pan African worldview. The very essence of music is interlocked with the presence of community in the African worldview. Through music the community expresses its emotional response to situations- death, birth, war, etc.

My point with this self examination is to try to define the very notion of how race, religion and rhetoric come into play into one person. This appearance of ambiguity to others but acute clarity to self is an unrelenting force to reckon with. They would appear to be irreconcilable differences housed in one mind but in a pragmatic fashion they work together in community. That which would appear to be disjointed is actually different parts working as a whole.

Existential Realism- I rock with Jakes and Calvin

Experience has a strange way of bringing a person to the depth of realism. It gives you the chance to wrestle with your own insecurities and biases up close and personal. As I get older and experience more of life, I am blown away by all that I don’t know about God. I grew up in the “name it and claim it” doctrine but matriculated to seminary where a reform mind became my standard. I studied Calvin, Luther and some of the other great theological minds as they wrested through the writings of Paul. I identified myself as a Calvinist (and to some extent I still do.) But on the flipside I ostracized Bishop TD Jakes, Noel Jones and Myles Munroe because they did not fit into my theological box-at the time.

They did not hold to a strict doctrinal stance like Calvin or Luther but they were the preachers that helped build my salvation foundationally. When I was growing up in the faith, they were the ones that encouraged me through their preaching but reform theology caused me to separate myself from these great pastors of the faith. There may have been some Modalism in operation but they still encouraged me. Yes, they may have believed in certain other doctrinal issues that differed from my newly reform mind but they were the face of my community. Some of them may have been Arminian in their position on salvation but they still believed in salvation nonetheless. Yes, some of them may have whooped a little but that was their right to do so and part of a living tradition in the black community.

My point here is that I am not wise enough to know if God is more pleased with one set than the other. Yes Jakes and Calvin are on two different sides of the spectrum but I believe they both have a profound love for God. Deep down I believe that Calvin was a product of his environment that set the table for the execution of a Servatus. I believe that Jakes loves the Lord and his method of teaching is beneficial for those in his congregation. Though Calvin and Luther had perceived beef with each other, I still think they ultimately understood of the others stance.

The end result is that I have my issues with Calvin, Luther and Jakes much the same but there are some things that each of the do so well that outweighs my intellectual disposition with each theologian/pastor. My reform brother would dare not mention Jakes in the same breath as Calvin but I submit that Calvin did not have the appeal of a Jakes. I would also note that many in the Pentecostal church would dare not mention Calvin the same breath as Jakes but from a strict theological interaction Calvin stands in a league of his own. My sophomoric understanding of existentialism allows me to identify with both groups with the ever-growing sense and belief that God is “transforming us all into the image of Christ.” I hold to Calvinism with tension as much as I hold with tension the teachings of Jakes. I do not think either of these men are/were blatantly out to hustle people with doctrine but they contextually and creatively found convening spaces to present the Gospel. I am not convinced that either of them had/have it down solid but that both are/were seeking greater understand of God. Thus I reiterate-Experience has a strange way of bringing a person to the depth of realism.