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Student Engagement

A Teaching Moment: Harriet Tubman

March 12, 2014
Photo credit: Oakland Local via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A mural of Harriet Tubman by artists Mike Threesixty and Desi W.O.M.E., as part of an ongoing partnership between People's Grocery and the Community Rejuvenation Project in Oakland, California.

Harriet Tubman Day was this week, March 10, and it's the date that marks her death in 1913. Although it is speculated that Tubman was born in the early 1820s, neither her birth day nor birth year are known since the births of slaves were not recorded. This is a time we can reflect on a fascinating and fierce woman, on different styles of leadership, on a kind of resilience that is hard to imagine and deeply inspiring, and on the telling of stories -- whose histories do we know? Whose get told?

Take a few moments to learn a little more about Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, and known also as Moses to those she led out of slavery. Share that learning with your children or students.

I have long wondered why Harriet Tubman's story has never been told as a feature film. Her story seems made for the big screen with its drama, action, war, compelling characters, issues of right and wrong, and even love and passion. I fantasize about making a film about Tubman, and it starts with this scene:

In the middle of the night, Tubman leads a handful of frightened men and women through the Maryland swamplands. In the distance we hear the howling of dogs and understand that the slave catchers are after this band of runaways. One young man -- the most visibly distressed --declares that he is returning to the plantation. "I can't do it," he says, "I'll be back before dawn and they'll never know I tried to escape." We barely see Tubman's face, there is no moon on this night, but we catch a glint of the revolver that she raises and points at the young man's head. We hear the force of her whispered words, "You go on or die."

Harriet Tubman, the conductor of the Underground Railroad, never lost a passenger. The young man she threatened continued on to freedom. It's this story that I always start with when talking to eighth graders about resistance to slavery. Was it right for her to threaten him? Would she have really killed him? Did she in fact kill any one else who was in this situation and we just don't know about it? What were they running from? Where were they running to? What would you have done?

Telling Her Story

Harriet Tubman rescued some 300 slaves in 19 expeditions over 11 years. Her maternal grandmother was stolen from Africa and told Harriet that she was Ashanti, a proud West African people who had built an extensive civilization and fought European colonization for almost a century. Harriet's mother (named Harriet) bore nine children. Several were sold, but when the master came to the slave quarters to take her youngest boy, she said, "The first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open." The master left them alone.

How do we learn resistance? From where do we find inspiration and courage? From the stories of our people, of our ancestors; from how we see family respond to injustice. We need these stories. We are responsible for telling them, for passing them on.

Her Own Struggles

When Harriet was a teenager she found herself in between a slave who was trying to escape and his overseer. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the man which struck Harriet in the head. Two days later, she was sent back into the fields, "with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn't see."

For the rest of her life, Harriet had seizures and excruciating headaches, and would suddenly fall unconscious. When she was in her late seventies (in the 1890s), desperate to relieve her suffering, she underwent brain surgery -- with no anesthesia. She bit down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do during amputations, and afterwards said, "He sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable."

Tubman became deeply religious as a teenager finding solace in the Old Testament stories of deliverance. Like Joan of Arc, she claimed to have divine visions and dreams.

I imagine and I wonder: this soft-spoken, five-foot-tall woman leading bands of frightened people though the night. Children and babies cried and could attract attention, so she drugged them. Many journeys to freedom took up to five weeks, walking all night, stopping sometimes at the homes of collaborators on the Underground Railroad, but also sleeping in swamps, under piles of manure, in potato holes. And then, sometimes, in the middle of the night, did she ever collapse into a heap of cranial pain and have visions of burning bushes and plagues of frogs? How did her passengers take care of their Moses and quiet her and protect her until her brain settled itself down? What were the messages she heard from beyond?

Harriet Tubman advised the Union Army, and served as a nurse caring for soldiers who contracted smallpox. Although she never contracted the disease herself, which she attributed to the power of God. After the Civil War, she became an advocate for women's right to vote and worked with suffragists including Susan B. Anthony. Tubman died penniless, in Auburn, New York, leaving no known heirs.

Bringing Her to Life

Harriet Tubman's story offers a fascinating study of leadership, resilience, and history. I know why a film about her has yet to be made -- politics and money and racism and all, but I know that it is something I will do before my life ends. See, my mother (a fierce fighter for social justice herself) raised me on stories of Harriet Tubman. I am who I am because of these stories. We are responsible for passing them on.

And my film will end with this -- Harriet's words from the first time she stood on land where she was free: "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."

Resources for teaching kids about Harriet Tubman:

The best book about Harriet Tubman for secondary students and adults: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton by Catherine Clinton.

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