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Over the past fifty years, as part of a sweeping effort to confront the legacy of slavery head-on, scholars have restored the African American autobiographical narrative to its place at the heart of American history. In particular, two shining examples, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), have emerged as radiant, talismanic objects for understanding men’s and women’s lives under slavery, the problems awaiting African Americans afterwards, and the potential of black lives to thrive against the odds. They have become, in short, modern scripture.
The rediscovery of a narrative by John Swanson Jacobs – a narrative lost for 162 years, no less – is therefore nothing short of miraculous. John Jacobs was Harriet Jacobs’s only sibling and Frederick Douglass’s protégé. His narrative is uniquely positioned to transform our knowledge of African American literature and history by shedding new light on the Jacobses and their connection to Douglass. Yet these relations only begin to suggest why his narrative is uniquely positioned to transform our knowledge of African American literature and history. The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story of Slavery (1855) is a major contribution to the tradition of black protest that runs from David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) through Black Lives Matter.
For if Despots provides new opportunities for understanding the relationship of the Jacobses to Douglass, it also demonstrates what sets John Jacobs apart from his sister, his friend, and all other authors in the genre. Indeed, this narrative is not the work of a full-time abolitionist, clergyman, or fugitive slave whose case was taken up by self-interested white publishers. It is the only known slave narrative written by a black revolutionary sailor. It is likewise the only known slave narrative printed outside the transatlantic abolitionist network that linked the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Somehow, as a stateless refugee and migrant laborer working in Australia, Jacobs was able to find a forum to print his narrative that did not come with the usual strings attached. Somehow he turned an unenviable situation to his advantage, using it to demonstrate that his own unfiltered, unadorned words could stand alone as proof of his self-worth. For these and many other reasons, Despots is a work that opens up new horizons for the study of ethnicity, race, and migration.
Yet even as it vibrates with the prophetic intonation of the orator and the clamorous protest of the sailor, Despots does not tell us about John’s time at the podium and at sea. Like nearly all slave narratives, it is silent about its author’s life after slavery. Consequently, to help readers understand the autobiography’s manifold connections to these and other areas of interest, I am writing a booklength biography to accompany my critical edition of the narrative. Comprising four chapters and an epilogue, this will be the first biography of John Jacobs, the first biography about the Jacobs men (many of whom were also seafarers), and the most chronologically extensive history of a Black family from enslavement to emancipation, tracing the Jacobs family from the arrival of their first ancestors in the 1720s through the twentieth century. Despots should become an essential companion piece to Yellin’s Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004), the biography that almost singlehandedly elevated Harriet Jacobs to her preeminent position in African American literature.