Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17

Image:  Wikipedia

This date was the day, in 1849, when Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and began a journey which freed so many others from inhuman bondage.  She was the builder and the conductor of the Underground Railroad, that route out of the American South that has become legend in our history.  We often romanticize the idea – yet the origin terminus of the Railroad tends to be lost in the telling.  We like the idea of escape from harrowing straits, but history, as it was taught to me anyway, tended to focus on freedom over slavery.  Even when the conditions were considered, it seemed to be from the white point of view – “we were bad” – not really about those who were sinned against.

Yet all my life, even here in the white-flight south, contained threads of truth.  Sojourner Truth, of course.  Maggie Walker, one of the most important figures in the history of finance in the United States, whose name is not enough spoken.  And Harriet Tubman.

Harriet was the figure of excitement, when we were kids.  Sojourner’s spirit may have been beyond our grasp, and Maggie’s accomplishments those of a boring adult.  But Tubman was a real *story* – the story of how my people did wrong, but somebody escaped.  The story of how she helped others to freedom.

Not being an adventure-story seeker, perhaps the tales appealed to me by assuaging some formless seed of White Liberal Guilt, but hers was the figure, of all these Black women, who seemed to mean something to me when I was very young.  Her powerful physical presence, her turban, her manifest *liberty*.  Easier, perhaps, to contemplate her than to imagine than those thousands of others who did not escape, not even with her indomitable struggles.


Harriet Tubman’s mother is said to have stood up to the masters when hers agreed with another to sell her youngest son – and to have succeeded.  Her father was manumitted in 1840, at the death of his master.  She married, before she herself was liberated, a free Black man.  Enchained she was, but freedom was no faraway concept in Maryland in those days.

But Harriet Tubman was a slave, even after she was a married woman, even after she adopted the name of her formidable mother.  She suffered beatings and being loaned away from her family, from that remarkable mother she loved and longed to be with.  From a young age, she was given the hardest work in the field, and endured illness and labor without respite.  She had her skull cracked open for standing up to a white man, and later wrote that it was her hair – her tight and thick hair – which saved her, perhaps, from bleeding to death, from life slipping through the break.

And yet, today, the culture in which we live dares to shame black women for wearing natural hair, even stealing from them the right to make a living.  It sounds, to lift a phrase from those who feel just as free to expend bigotry upon arbitrarily defined periods of time as some feel to wield it against other souls, “positively medieval” to punish, so brutally and in such extraordinary ignorance, someone for the way their hair grows.  For the way they are made – designed, if you will, by the very G-d we have presumed to invoke in defense of the institution of slavery.  Shameful as that was, we are hardly stainless today.

Imagine being wronged and physically injured – reaching to your head and feeling the wound – feeling, even, the bone, no longer whole.  Imagine that you can feel your very HAIR staunching the blood; or knit, perhaps, thick and strong, over two pieces of yourself where once there was one piece.  Imagine feeling that here, like Samson, was the thing that held you to life.



One hundred sixty-five years ago, on this day, one woman escaped for the first time (she was forced back and had to flee again) – and, by her will and her power and her conviction, eventually dozens of others found the liberation she had.  Though not without allies along her way, she was utterly alone in flight, and became a stranger in a strange land.

By the time she had begun the Railroad, white slaveowners presumed some white abolitionist must be siphoning away their slaves – it was unthinkable a Black woman could have succeeded as a leader, taking so many to freedom.  Yet she rescued her own family.  She worked with John Brown and with Susan B. Anthony.  She refused to allow her “passengers” to quail, to quit, to fail, she assisted the Union in the Civil War.  She offered this lesson to President Lincoln:

(T)he negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That's what master Lincoln ought to know.

Asked to speak a word of Harriet Tubman for a biography of her, Frederick Douglass said:

The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.



September 17 was the first time she escaped … and, in some way, she spent the rest of her life – escaping, again and again, and bringing with her so many others.  One hundred sixty-five years.  It isn’t all that long a time.

No comments: