#WhyWeStan: Harriet Tubman
Updated: Feb 1, 2020
Harriet Tubman is an iconic symbol of freedom. She is an emblem of our ancestors’ fortitude and bravery. She was a physically tiny woman with massive faith in God. For so many of us, she has been reduced to an almost-mythical figure whose praises are sung once yearly during Black History Month. I was first introduced to her as a coloring sheet in (probably) second grade and for a long time, she existed as a coloring book page hero in my mind.
As I committed to learning more about my ancestors and elevating them from the status of two-dimensional Black History Month social studies busy work, I learned that Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross circa March 1822, an enslaved woman on the Brodess plantation in Dorchester County, MD. Facing the threat of being sold to another slave owner, she trekked over 100 miles to freedom in Philadelphia. She made countless missions along the Underground Railroad to bring her family and others who were enslaved up to freedom. Historians debate the number of people she freed independently, marking it around 70. She went on to lead a raid that would free 750 more enslaved people during the American Civil War.
When I was in college, Harriet Tubman became something of a patron saint for me. I have a portrait tattoo of her on my left leg done in 2018 by sculptor, performance and tattoo artist Doreeen Garner. The tattoo’s meaning, composition, and placement are highly symbolic for me. She’s on my left leg, my weaker leg, to inspire strength. Her image is in the style of the sun in splendour - she is for me a North Star and guiding light. Rising from my own difficult personal battles with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sexual assault, I’ve looked to Harriet, the strongest ancestor whose name I know, for feminine power and bravery in my darkest times. She is a reminder to celebrate the freedoms I have and never to forget my duty to liberate others.
Why We Stan Harriet Tubman:
She freed herself and over 700 other enslaved people: The exact number she freed is debated by historians. She freed at least 70 people independently. Some historians credit her with freeing up to 3000 people.
She had a disability: She freed herself and over 700 other enslaved people while regularly experiencing epileptic episodes. She exhibited symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of a traumatic brain injury sustained when a slave owner threw a weight, attempting to hit another runaway slave. When he missed his intended target, he hit Harriet, breaking her skull and leaving her in a coma. Her injuries were never properly attended to and she was quickly sent back to work in the fields.
...or maybe she had superpowers: She did not free hundreds of people despite her disability - she actually credits her seizures, or visions from God as she described them, with giving her critical, supernatural insight into the best routes to take to escape the slave catchers who sought to capture her. She also used songs to encrypt messages to the people she was trying to free. Show me a Marvel hero who can see the future and send magical musical messages (MMMs ™)... I’ll wait.
A patron saint for recovering from ain’t sh*t men: After successfully rescuing her sister and her sister’s family and brother in two missions, her third mission was to bring the reluctant husband whom she’d loved deeply but left behind when their visions on escaping to freedom differed. Some historical accounts speculate that John Tubman abused Harriet and threatened to report her when she disclosed her plan to escape. When she returned to Maryland for him, she discovered he’d married and impregnated another woman. With every right to fall apart and abandon the mission (or to strangle him *shrugs*), she pressed on with her mission and freed more of her family members. In 1869, when she was in her late 40s, she married Nelson Davis (ten years her junior) and together they shared a peaceful 19-year marriage until his death.
She was a naturalist: Harriet’s journey took place mostly on foot, which means she led people to freedom through forests, wetlands, and over hills and valleys guided by the stars and her knowledge of local fauna and geography. She served as a nurse at Fort Monroe during the Civil War, using her knowledge of plant medicine to help treat soldiers with dysentery. When she settled in New York, she sold home-grown produce and pies to support herself financially.
She was a bad mf: History books and coloring pages have sanitized her and made her into a soft older woman posed stoically with an antebellum dress and a lace shawl over her shoulder. Harriet did most of her rescue missions in her twenties. She was a physically strong, quick-witted warrior of a woman who would whip out a pistol with the quickness to get the people she was freeing in line when they threatened to abandon the freedom mission. She was a spy for the Union Army and also the first (and probably only) woman in recorded history to have led an armed expedition in the Civil War. When she had brain surgery in an effort to treat her seizures, she refused anesthesia and instead chose to bite a bullet.
She never quit: As if she had not done enough in her life, at the age of 74, she purchased over 25 acres of land in Auburn, NY to establish the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes to carry on her work of caring for the old and poor in her community. She died as a patient at the Tubman Home at about 92 years old.