home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

harriet tubman

6 may 2016

When I heard that Harriet Tubman was going to be on a new $20 bill, I had to do a mental check of everything that I knew about Harriet Tubman. A nanosecond and the phrase "Underground Railroad" later, I resolved to read a book about Harriet Tubman.

Being me, I went for the meta-biography, Milton Sernett's Harriet Tubman: Myth, memory, and history. Metabiography seemed all the more indicated because actual biographical evidence for Harriet Tubman's exploits is exceptionally thin. There are structural reasons for this, prime among them the secrecy in which she had to work and the illiteracy that prevented her from telling her own story in durable media. Sernett establishes that Tubman lives primarily in myth and memory, often not in any condition that academics would recognize as "history."

That so much of the Tubman iconic development rests on so small a body of known fact is illustrative of the power of myth and of the socio-psychological need to create a black heroine in an American culture saturated with white male historical icons. (67)
Sernett doesn't doubt that Harriet Tubman existed, or anything like that: there are lots of photographs and interviews from her long post-Civil-War life. There seems no reason to doubt that she was born a slave in Maryland, escaped, and then returned to free her family and other slaves from bondage. She was indeed active on the Underground Railroad between Maryland and Ontario. After this, documentation dwindles. The Underground Railroad did not keep schedules or passenger manifests. Myth credits Tubman with 19 missions into Maryland that freed 300 slaves. Modern scholarship thinks that 14 trips and 60 people freed is closer to the truth, and it may well be fewer: most of the expeditions scholars count are mere mentions in some second-hand text or another.

Later, Tubman served as a nurse and a scout/spy of sorts in occupied South Carolina during the War. Accounts of that service are also commonly inflated, sometimes crediting her with being more or less formally a "general" and actually leading troops. And still later, she is sometimes said to have been a suffragist leader. Susan B. Anthony certainly knew her, but no less a figure than Carrie Chapman Catt told biographer Earl Conrad, in 1939, that she had never heard of Harriet Tubman.

Frederick Douglass met her, however, and so did John Brown, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson; and there are a few surviving primary documents that put Tubman close to the action of the Railroad. Her case becomes a fascinating example of how we establish the veracity of a past, especially a past of silence, secrecy, orality, and erasure. Harriet Tubman did not enter history as a mundane individual who later developed a mystique. She arrived as a mystique that later picked up some concrete reinforcement.

Sernett charts the development of both the mystique and the conventional historiography. He takes an idiosyncratic path. He starts with biographical chronology in mind, looking at how images of Tubman's childhood have changed over the years. There are very few reports, even at a distance, of how Tubman grew up. One story has become almost as famous, in children's books, as George Washington and his cherry tree: the tale of how a white man (overseer, or shop assistant) threw a heavy weight at Tubman, concussing her and causing her lifelong issues with narcolepsy or seizures. Unlike the cherry tree, the story of the weight is peculiar enough (even the insistence on the size of the weight, two pounds) that it rings true, especially as it's not otherwise sensationalized.

Tubman has become a fixture of children's books in the last fifty years, Sernett shows, and here we see the cultural work of children's literature. From being a dry historical name she has become the central hero of a narrative taught over and over in American schools, so familiar that she's a natural candidate for the double sawbuck. I missed this wave of Tubman-centered education, doing my early schooling in a 1960s far more likely to teach kids Washington and his cherry tree than Tubman and her two-pound weight.

After leaving Tubman's childhood (the subject of later books) behind, Sernett looks at Tubman's adult career (first documented in much earlier books). At this point his chronology becomes one of Tubman's reputation rather than her life. Sarah Bradford, author of two books (1869, and, much revised, 1886) is the basic source of most later knowledge. Her eclectic (frankly, disorganized, according to Sernett) 1869 Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman makes use of Tubman's own memories and of some second-hand reportage; her 1886 Harriet, the Moses of Her People is more pious and hagiographic. The rawer nature of the earlier book makes it a better source. Tubman was quite alive in 1886 and could perhaps have collaborated on a more documentary biography at that point; but the myth-making impulse had taken over.

In 20th-century historiography, Sernett is fascinated by the career of Earl Conrad. His seventh chapter is as much biography of Conrad as anything else. A left-wing, staunch anti-racist of the 1930s, Conrad lived in youthful poverty as he collected any and all documents relating to Harriet Tubman. His subsequent biography has literary flaws, in Sernett's analysis, but was a bold and idealistic undertaking, meeting rejection from publisher after publisher – who may have been unimpressed by Conrad's writing, but in addition were unwilling to devote editorial attention to a book about a crusading black woman. The story has a happy ending, as Conrad's book was eventually taken on by a small press, stayed in print to become the authoritative book on Tubman for many decades, and led to a long career for Conrad as a professional author.

Sernett reviews later academic biographies and tours sites associated with Tubman (in upstate New York and Eastern-Shore Maryland). He applauds the work done by recent writers Jean Humez, Kate Larson, and Catherine Clinton. He elaborates their debunking of myths surrounding Tubman's homes and haunts. At last, by 2007, academic scholarship has caught up with mythography, and has established a firm basis for consideration of the "Moses of her people."

Although compared to Frederick Douglass or even Harriet Jacobs, certain things about Harriet Tubman can never be established. We don't even know the names of all the people she is said to have saved from bondage; as often with African-American history, we can't know them: they were unrecorded by slavemasters, lack connections to later records of freedmen, and in any case were importantly incognito at key junctures. To demand the precision of history that we have in the case of white Americans is to doubly erase once-erased people. Resistance to slavery was neither insignificant nor inconsequential for being anonymous.

We know thousands of things about Andrew Jackson and only a few about Harriet Tubman. But that does not mean that Tubman is replacing Jackson on the twenty out of sentimentality or political correctness. She's a hero in her own right, even if we're uncertain of the full dimensions of that right. And she also stands as metonym for acts of resistance against an inhuman regime, for all the refusals and evasions and escapes that can't be specified but accrete around her name because she prevailed and survived.

I seem to be making Harriet Tubman into a symbol, which runs the risk of saying that her value matters whether it's "true" or not. Sernett insists on "an informed and critical understanding of the origins of the Tubman myth [and] of the life behind the symbol" (253). And yet oral tradition, legends spoken and written, and imaginative recreation are all kinds of history in their own right, if not those of academia. I think what matters is critical thinking that acknowledges them both and keeps them separate. If we say that thousands of people escaped slavery and millions more resisted it in various ways, and we imagine or extrapolate those lost acts of resistance, we engage in a kind of history (a kind that is surely accurate even if it can never be exhaustively represented). But if we allege that Harriet Tubman personally rescued a thousand people from slavery (as the most famous made-up viral quote attributed to her claims), then we are making a lateral move from myth into history, and giving myth the status of history, which seems unfortunately to insist that the past is a place full of superheroes. One woman can only do so much: but imagine how much so many similar women must have done in many lifetimes.

Sernett, Milton C. Harriet Tubman: Myth, memory, and history. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. E 444 .T82S45