Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Basic Civitas Books; 394 pages), by Jean Fagan Yellin, is the first biography of Jacobs, and it's a harrowing case study of the cruel conundrums women faced under slavery. When Jacobs was an adolescent, her master made sexual advances toward her. She tried to discourage him by initiating an affair with a neighbor. "At fifteen," Yellin writes, "she did not have the option of choosing virginity." But the harassment persisted, and in 1835 Jacobs took more drastic action: she ran to her grandmother's house and hid in a cubbyhole. Her sanctuary was 9 ft. long by 3 ft. high. She stayed there for almost seven years.
In 1842, Jacobs finally escaped to the North. "Sweet and bitter," she wrote, "were mixed in the cup of my life, and I was thankful that it had ceased to be entirely bitter." Though few slaves were literate, as a child she had served a sympathetic woman who had tutored her. Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl during hours snatched from her duties as a domestic. It became a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and then, according to Yellin, whose book continues where Jacobs' ends, the ex-slave's work really began. Jacobs worked with black refugees from the Civil War and founded a school for poor black children. She never married and was never financially comfortable. In 1885, when she was in her 70s, she heard that her former owner's widow was living nearby and was in dire straits. Jacobs went over and cooked her dinner.
Harriet Tubman was Jacobs' temperamental opposite, but in many ways their lives ran on parallel tracks. In Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown; 272 pages), the first major biography of Tubman in more than 100 years, we see the heroine of children's books and biopics with a new clarity and richness of detail. Born a slave in Maryland, Tubman made a break for freedom in 1849, leaving her husband behind. "There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death," she later said. "If I could not have one, I would have the other." Like Jacobs, she wasn't satisfied with just her own freedom. Tubman led more than 200 slaves north out of captivity along the Underground Railroad.
Five feet tall, illiterate and cursed with poor health and a scowling countenance, Tubman was often underestimated. When one of her charges lost his nerve on the road north, she famously whipped out a revolver and instructed him to "move or die." When war came, Tubman worked with the Union Army and even led a successful raid up the Combahee River in South Carolina. But Tubman's battles did not end with the fighting. After the war, on a train back north, the conductor didn't believe a black woman could possibly have been carrying a legitimate military pass. It took four men to drag Tubman out of her seat.
Tubman died in 1913, but slavery has long outlived her. In her terrifying memoir, Slave: My True Story (PublicAffairs; 350 pages), written with journalist Damien Lewis, Mende Nazer recounts how in 1993, when she was about 12 (her people keep no birth records), she was kidnapped from her village in the remote mountains of Sudan and sold as a slave to an Arab family in Khartoum. She spent the next seven years in ceaseless drudgery. Houseguests groped her freely, and her mistress beat her regularly and even burned her with a hot ladle for serving eggs fried instead of poached. In a nightmare parody of bourgeois house pride, Nazer's owners showed her off like a new Sub-Zero refrigerator. "Let me tell you," her mistress chattered to visitors, "if you have an abda [a slave] in your home, like her, it's like a blessing."
Eventually Nazer's owners sent her off to serve their relatives in England, where she was able to escape. The book's most chilling moment comes the night before she leaves Khartoum. Nazer, then 19, was introduced to a desperate, disoriented little girl named Nanu. "Here," she realized, "was my replacement slave." At moments like this we sense the sadness of the stories we will never read, the stories of those who lived as slaves and died that way. Jacobs, Tubman and Nazer are miraculous exceptions, blessed with the iron will, steely intellect and golden luck required to survive an ordeal that spared only the truly indomitable. The lives of most of their fellow sufferers will remain unwritten.