In a speech on Tuesday (July 21), rapper Kanye West made the surprising claim that Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves” but had them “work for other white people”, prompting both a flurry of fact-checks and a wave of indignation.
For, Harriet Tubman is not just an abolitionist and civil rights activist from the distant past, but an American hero, whose story has been told and retold in children’s books, re-discovered in movies and TV shows, and recently become a part of the political narrative around race in the country.
In March 2013, then President Barack Obama, in a proclamation announcing the establishment of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad monument in Dorchester County Maryland, said, “She was born enslaved, liberated herself, and returned to the area of her birth many times to lead family, friends, and other enslaved African Americans north to freedom.”
In 2016, the Obama administration announced its plan to knock the image of former US President Andrew Jackson, who was a slave-owner, off the $20 bill, and replace him with Tubman — a move to bring more diversity in symbols of American life.
So, who was Harriet Tubman? Why does her life story resonate with contemporary America?
Born in Bondage
She was born Minty (Araminta) Ross sometime around 1822 to a family of slaves in Maryland, a state on the border of the slave-owning South and the free North.
A feisty and strong child, she grew up working on the plantation, unafraid of hard work. She was punished and beaten often, and at the age of 13, suffered a serious head injury. Like many enslaved African-American people, she watched her family being permanently torn apart, when three of her sisters were sold to slave-owners in the Deep South.
In 1844, Minty married a free black man, and took on the new name Harriet. But only five years later, it became clear to her that the death of her owner (Edward Brodess) would mean that she, too, was at risk of being sold off.
In September 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers made a bolt for freedom, hiding in the countryside for three weeks. With $300 announced as reward to find and bring back the slaves, Harry and Ben, Harriet’s brothers, lost their nerve and returned. Tubman carried on, travelling alone, often at night, and using the iconic Underground Railroad network to reach Philadelphia.
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The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was not a railroad at all, but a clandestine network that helped slaves escape and cross the Maison-Dixon line that separated the free states from the Southern slave-owning states.
Run by former slaves and white abolitionists, the Railroad was a loose chain of safe-houses in which fugitive slaves were harboured, stashed away in barns or hidden in cellars from slave-catchers and policemen who had the power to drag them back to their plantations.
While the Underground Railroad never had any presence in the deep South, in the decades leading up to the American Civil War, it helped several African-Americans escape to a better life in the northern states and — after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal to shelter fugitive slaves even in the North — to Canada.
Tubman was one of those who took the Underground Railroad, travelling at night, following the North Star on a perilous 100-mile journey. In ‘Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman’ (1869), a biography by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, she recounted to the author the moment of her crossover: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
But it was not just her freedom that Tubman wanted. “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”
In the ensuing years, she became one of the most successful “conductors” of the Railroad, earning the nickname of ‘Moses’. She is believed to have made about 13 trips back to Maryland, mostly travelling during winter, even at the risk of discovery, to free about 70 people, mostly friends and family.
According to Catherine Clinton’s 2004 biography, ‘Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom’, she often carried a pistol with her as defence against attackers. But she also used it to frighten any fugitive slave who had a change of mind to persist with the journey, lest she/he give away their secret.
A different track
In 1860, Harriet Tubman made her last rescue attempt in Maryland. But her journey as an abolitionist was far from over.
She worked as a cook, nurse, spy, and soldier for the Union army during the American Civil War. She led a raid against the Confederates at the Combahee River in South Carolina, freeing over 700 slaves.
In her later life, she settled in New York, and became a suffragist. She never escaped economic hardship till the end, but remained generous to a fault, helping set up a home for elderly coloured people, where she died in 1913.
In popular culture
For contemporary America, the Underground Railroad remains a metaphor for the journey that the country took out of a dark period in its history — as well as the journey that remains to be taken.
It is the subject of a 2016 webseries by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, which interestingly, also features a Kanye West song. Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name imagines it as a real rail network, while telling the story of the escape of two slaves, Cora and Caesar.
As one of the most successful conductors of the Railroad, Harriet Tubman is the archetypical American hero, who has been mythologised through children’s books and pop culture. Several exaggerated claims of her heroism — as well as fake quotes, the true sign of Internet fame — also float around. But a serious scholarly examination of her life has come only in recent years, with the 2004 biography by Clinton. In 2019, Kasi Lemmons told the cinematic story of Tubman’s heroism in ‘Harriet’, which got two Academy Award nominations.
The Tubman bill
In 2014, an 11-year-old girl wrote a letter to then President Obama, asking why there were no women on US currency bills. One of the figures she suggested was Tubman. Two years later, she got a call from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s office, announcing her advice had been heeded.
“The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old,” Lew had said.
But the new note’s release, planned in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the amendment that granted American women the right to vote, has been delayed by the Trump administration until 2028 for “technical reasons”.
Donald Trump has dismissed the decision to replace Jackson as “political correctness”. Critics have read it as another sign of the distance the US has travelled in the years of the Trump presidency on matters of race, and an ongoing contest between two imaginations of America’s forefathers and foremothers.
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