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A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years

John S. Jacobs was a fugitive, an abolitionist — and the brother of the canonical author Harriet Jacobs. Now, his own fierce autobiography has re-emerged.

One day in 1855, a man walked into a newspaper office in Sydney, Australia, with an odd request.

The man, later described as a “man of color” with “bright, intelligent eyes” and an American accent, was looking for a copy of the United States Constitution.

The text was procured, along with a recent book on the history of the United States. Two weeks later, the man returned with a nearly 20,000-word text of his own, bearing a blunt title: “The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots.”

The first half offered an account of the author’s birth into slavery in North Carolina around 1815, his escape from his master, his years on a whaling ship and then his departure from “the land of the free” for the shores of Australia, where he went to work in the gold fields.

The second half was a long, blistering condemnation of the country he had left behind, in particular its revered founding document.

“That devil in sheepskin called the Constitution of the United States,” the man wrote, is “the great chain that binds the north and south together, a union to rob and plunder the sons of Africa, a union cemented with human blood, and blackened with the guilt of 68 years.”

The newspaper published the narrative anonymously, in two installments, attributing it only to “A Fugitive Slave.” How it was received is unknown.

The man’s words then sat, unread and forgotten, until a few years ago, when an American literary scholar came across them while digging around one night in an online newspaper database.

Now, it is being published for the first time in 169 years by the University of Chicago Press, under its unflinching original title, with the author’s name — John Swanson Jacobs — emblazoned on the cover.

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The rediscovery of a long-forgotten slave narrative would be notable enough. But this one, scholars who have seen it say, is unique for its global perspective and its uncensored fury, from a man living far outside the trans-Atlantic network of white abolitionists who often limited what the formerly enslaved could write about their experiences.

And it comes with an uncanny twist: Jacobs was the brother of Harriet Jacobs, whose 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” the first published slave narrative written by a formerly enslaved African American woman, is now seen as a cornerstone of the 19th-century literary canon.

Today, John Jacobs is remembered mostly as a footnote to his sister’s story. But Jonathan D.S. Schroeder, the scholar who rediscovered the narrative, said he hopes the book will restore Jacobs to history, placing him in the tradition of Black radicalism from David Walker’s incendiary “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” from 1829 to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

The narrative is a “spectacular performance of autobiographical freedom,” Schroeder argues. And it raises a deeper question: How would other formerly enslaved people — including Jacobs’s more famous sister — have told their stories if they had been truly able to write freely?

Slave narratives have been called the United States’ only homegrown literary genre, if also a complicated one. Well into the 20th century, they were dogged by questions about their authenticity, and the degree to which they had been shaped, or even fabricated, by white editors.

But today, the roughly 200 known to survive are prized both as direct testimony of enslavement and as the seedbed of a literary tradition that stretches from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead (whose novel “The Underground Railroad’ was partly inspired by Harriet Jacobs’s book).

Schroeder came upon John Jacobs’s 1855 narrative by an odd back door. Back in 2017, he was fresh out of graduate school in English, and trying to turn his Ph.D. dissertation about the history of nostalgia into a book.

Today, we may think of nostalgia, a term coined in the 1680s by a Swiss physician, as a pleasantly wistful state. But it originated as a medical diagnosis, which was often applied to despondent prisoners, soldiers and others seen as “irrationally” homesick, including enslaved people.

One night, after a day of working on a job application, Schroeder was digging around on the internet, trying to blow off “stress anxiety.” He had been reading the 2004 biography of Harriet Jacobs by Jean Fagan Yellin and was fascinated by the fact that both her brother and her son, Joseph, had gone to Australia — “physically pretty much the farthest away from America you could get,” as Schroeder put it.