On February 8, Zyanda Anntoinette Johnson captivated her audience in the Mickey
L. Burnim Fine Arts Center with her portrayal of North Carolina native Harriet Ann
Jacobs. Jacobs' autobiography, "Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl" (1861) was
the source of a historical drama, "The Fragrance of Freedom, "which Johnson wrote
The drama reflects on the cruelty of slavery, the lack of control slaves had over
their bodies, their families and the lack of fair labor standards. For years, Jacob
lived in seclusion (her grandmother's attic) to avoid her abusive slave owner and
a system (slavery) that tore the families and the nation apart. "Incidents in the
life of a Slave Girl" is a highly recommend female antebellum slave narrative for
students at Elizabeth City State University. Dr. Hilary Green, an assistant professor
in the Department of History and Political Science, recommends the book for students
enrolled in her class, History 250, African American History to 1877.
"I am often struck by how many students have not heard of this Edenton native. There
is a marker in Edenton to indicate Jacobs was a native. I share with students a map
of Edenton and from it I can show students where Jacobs' home stood, her grandmother's
home and all the major places she wrote about in the book, "Incidents in the life
of a Slave Girl," Green said.
"The book is a personal favorite. Her gripping narrative enables me to reveal the
local contributions to the larger study of African American history. In celebration
of the 200th anniversary of Harriet Jacobs' birth, my colleague, Professor Tonya Blair,
and I felt that this performance would be a fitting tribute."
After escaping, Jacobs found work in the north as a nursemaid. She became an abolitionist
who helped other slaves escape. She and her daughter, Louisa, helped Black refugees
and eventually helped establish schools and nursing homes. Johnson told her audience
it is her pleasure to perform this drama fueled by a mother's love for her children
and a woman's courageous pursuit of freedom. Her performance is one of many free events
slated at ECSU for Black History Month.
Johnson is an actress, director, playwright and storyteller. She has appeared in theatre
productions of Jar the Floor, The Colored Museum, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, From
the Mississippi Delta, A Raisin' in the Sun, For Colored Girls... and the Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. Papers Project for Stanford University. She recently completed writing
her first play "The Fragrance of Freedom," a 90-minute solo performance piece on the
life of feminist and slave Harriet Ann Jacobs. Johnson has presented this historical
drama at several colleges and university since the fall of 2012.