We have been learning about Harriet Tubman aka Moses since grade school. She is one of those black history month staples that people think they know but, we have no idea what she did outside of the underground railroad and even that was not explained well. Kate Clifford Larson’s book, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero did an amazing job of shedding some light on not just Tubman’s life but also the institution of slavery on the eastern shore and the vibe of the nation as a whole before and after emancipation. I could go on and on about this book but I do not want to spoil it for you so here are some “themes” I am still stewing on. (but you have to read it and tell me your thoughts too)
Harriet Tubman is the pioneer of black girl magic. Tubman was one of those simple women like the grandmas down south. She spoke plainly and had no agenda other than to do what she set out to do.She was not looking for fame or fortune in her pursuits. Her entire journey started with not wanting her or her family to be sold. She found a way to free herself through the underground railroad and simply decided she was going back for her family. That is it. There was no ego except that she knew she could do it. This is a small, illiterate woman who was prone to blackouts making trips back and forth into slavery to free her family, other people’s family, friends, and kids- how? I was just overcome with just how brave she had to have been to do this and keep doing it…even after slave patrols, punishments and rewards for capture increased.
White Allies and Abolitionists. A lot of the conversations people had about the role of white allies and white abolitionist back in the 1800’s persist today. Don’t get me wrong, if were not for the white allies on the Underground Railroad I am not sure we would be talking about Tubman the way we do today. Their role was pivotal but I was struck by the words “It’s for her people” and not people. Even though they were against slavery, the idea of full personhood for black people was still something out of their reach. For some, it was easier but for many, it was not helping fellow Americans or humans but rather “those poor unfortunate darkies” need our help. This kind of thinking is the foundation of how people talk about race today.
Harriet and the Civil War. Harriet Tubman’s role during the civil war was paramount. We know that she helped the Union win. The part I was interested in was gender. I had great trouble processing Tubman, Moses if you will, having to be given passes and constantly assert herself as more than a woman. She was rarely paid and often looked down on for her gender ….even more than her race in a war. The work of black women, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman were all catalysts for the civil war and given the least respect. Even after the war, the government would recognize Harriet only as a nurse, ignoring the role she played in intelligence gathering and the recruitment of black soldiers.
Post-war and the lies we still tell ourselves. After the war, the backlash and resentment heaped on black people in the North was surprising to me. These are places that were anti-slavery and fought against fugitive slave laws and helps slaves evade re-capture. What changed? Was it fatigue of war or were they never “for black people” to begin with? I have questions. I was also shocked by how soon we wanted to soften the war, the institution of slavery and flatten the lives of black abolitionist leaders. We see this in 2017 but to think it started to happen almost immediately after the war was won. It makes you wonder how much progress have we actually made on the hearts and minds front.
The book was really good – it was hard to not just gush about all the things that happened and spoil it for you. It was one of those reads that left me with the screw face a lot. Harriett Tubman is one of the most amazing women in our history – she was incredibly strong and giving to a literal fault. There were so many times where I just wanted her to take care of herself but she had bigger plans and we are grateful for her sacrifice.
Pick it up for yourself!