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The Slaves’ New Year’s Day

Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a moving narrative of her childhood and early adulthood living as a slave in Edenton, N.C. In the chapter “The Slaves’ New Year’s Day,” Jacobs reminds her readers that New Year’s Day was among the most dreaded days of the year for African Americans in the antebellum South. On January 1, slaves were commonly hired out for the year, a process that often split families apart. Jacobs writes

O, you happy free women, contrast your New Year’s day with that of the poor bond-woman! With you it is a pleasant season, and the light of the day is blessed. Friendly wishes meet you every where, and gifts are showered upon you. Even hearts that have been estranged from you soften at this season, and lips that have been silent echo back, “I wish you a happy New Year.” Children bring their little offerings, and raise their rosy lips for a caress. They are your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you.

But to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies.

The full text of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is available on Documenting the American South.