Harriet Jacobs Alive (sort of)

Last night, the Burke Library showed "Seeds of Destruction," the third episode of Slavery and the Making of America, a 2005 PBS series on how the nation's history, economy, and social structures were and are built on slavery. 

This episode focused on the early 1800s (ending as the Civil War began). As documentaries often do, larger issues were explained through individual people--one of whom was Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) who worked in Alexandria in 1863-1865.

 Nikki O'Dell, who portrayed Harriet Jacobs in the PBS Documentary   Slavery and the Making of America.

Nikki O'Dell, who portrayed Harriet Jacobs in the PBS Documentary Slavery and the Making of America.

We had a visitor that connected the past with the present. Nikki O'Dell, the actor who played Jacobs in her teens and twenties, introduced the segment and took questions afterwards.

Nikki brought along her well-thumbed copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs's autobiography of her enslavement, escape, and life up North. Her character did not speak  (voice-overs used, with overall narration by Morgan Freeman), but she had to portray Harriet in her fear in the Norcom household and her years-long survival hidden in her grandmother's attic when she escaped the Norcoms. Reading the book many times over helped her interpret the role.

Nikki said the producers cast her when they saw her photos, without the usual angst of a competitive audition. That's because she resembled the younger actor already chosen as young Harriet. After she got the role, she recounted how she drove to the plantation used as the set--top down in a rented convertible, music on--and entered the world of Harriet Jacobs. Recall that Harriet spent almost 7 years in an attic the size, according to an interview on the show with biographer Jean Yellin, of a large library table. Thus, hair, dress, and face reflected that fact. She did not take advantage of air-conditioning during breaks to remain within the role.

Images above from an excerpt of the PBS program: on the left, in the attic; on the right, in freedom in Philadelphia. Below, the full trailer:

The discussion also moved to current-day relations related to race and gender, power and control. Slavery continues to shape our history.

After several years of acting and modeling, Nikki runs a talent agency in D.C. But portraying Harriet Jacobs has clearly stayed with her for more than a decade--hence, her willingness to come out on a cold Monday evening to share her experience. 

Harriet Jacobs went on to serve as a teacher and advocate for freedpeople, including in Alexandria. Read more about her experiences herea elsewhere on this site and in my book.