Harriet Tubman

Scars of Misogynoir 

Written by Jamila Pereira

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

I bleed a bit every day

As my soul sisters shred into pieces

And their hearts shed into ashes

All because misogynoir took over our men and left them wailing at sea.

Doomed to dwell on what true love looks like.

Isn’t a white assailant enough to deal with?

Why are my sisters being shot out of hope and trust?

As if happiness had been forsaken at birth, but a culture of abuse was entirely normalised. 

You bare witness my sisters’ eyes being pierced by waterfalls 

Day in, Day out

So, I’m sure the putrid smell of their pain shall bother you at some point. 

Since their blood has been scattered all over this land and now bathes our children

Nonetheless, change is yet to come.

They rode and died yesterday, 

Submissive and compliant 

They ride and die today,

Belittled and alone

And somehow the signs ain’t enough

Because they’ll ride and die tomorrow too.

Raped and murdered

I bleed a bit every day.

As my Black sisters shred into pieces.

And their heart sheds into ashes.

Jamila is a Bissau-Guinean freelance writer, poet and International Relations graduate, based in Leeds. Jamila’s work can be avidly found both in Portuguese and English, through platforms such as Black Ballad, Grown Magazine and Bantumen, where she explores the politics of the identity of Black women in the diaspora and beyond. She is also a screenplay writer, a shortlisted member of the Top 20 Merky Books Writer’s Camp 2019 and a co-author of anti-racist and political anthologies published by Brazillian publisher, Editora Urutau. 

Harriet Tubman

“so you [want] to hear [the] story [of] Harriet’s life all over [again] . . . [Appears] like [you’ve] heard it so many times you could tell [that] story [yourself].”

– Harriet Tubman, speaking to Emma P. Telford, “Harriet: The Modern Moses of Heroism and Visions.” (c. 1905), page 3. [I have amended Telford’s unreliable rendering of Tubman’s dialect].

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Of the women included in this series, none has had her biography retold and celebrated more than Harriet Tubman, the famed Conductor of the Underground Railroad, who, after her own daring escape from slavery, earned herself the name “Moses” by making numerous trips South to free more enslaved people. Three editions of Tubman’s narrative were published during her life, all of which were recorded by her white female amanuensis (ghost-writer), Sarah Bradford. First came Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), then Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886 and reprinted in 1897), and finally an updated version of the second narrative with further appendices also called Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1901) (Humez 149). In addition to those narratives, biographies have been produced by Earl Conrad (1943), Jean M. Humez (2003), Kate Clifford Larson (2003), Catherine Clinton (2004), Milton C. Sernett (2007), and Erica Armstrong Dunbar (2019). In 2014, Meridians, an academic journal, published a special edition of collected papers from a conference that brought academics and activists together to discuss and celebrate Tubman’s legacy. A recurring theme within that special issue of Meridians is the need for a Tubman biopic, and in 2019 that demand was met with the release of Harriet (Lemmons, Focus/Universal), the first major biographical film of her life. 

The repeated retelling of Tubman’s life means that, for many people, some of the following biographical information about her will already be familiar. Tubman was born into enslavement in Maryland in 1822. Her birth name was Araminta Ross. Both of her parents, Harriet Green and Ben Ross, were enslaved when Tubman was born. Her father was freed through the will of his deceased enslaver in 1840 (Larson 27). Ben later purchased the freedom of Harriet Green, although the precise date of that purchase is not known(Larson 119-120). Araminta changed her name to Harriet Tubman when she married John Tubman in 1844, taking the first name of her mother and the last name of her new husband (Larson 62). In 1849, Tubman liberated herself by running North, using the North Star to guide her footsteps and the Underground Railroad’s network of agents and safe houses to help her on her way. After securing her own freedom, Tubman became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad herself, and between 1850 and 1860 she made numerous trips into the South to lead people to freedom. During the US Civil War (1861-1865), she worked as a cook, a nurse, and a scout in the Union Army (Larson 301-303). In 1863, she led an armed raid up the Combahee River, freeing over seven-hundred enslaved people (Larson 212-217). In 1896, she purchased the land that would go on to become the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Infirm Negroes under the custodianship of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1908 (Larson 285, 304). Tubman died on 10th March 1913 in Auburn, New York State.

Besides being a famous historical figure with an incredible life that is worth studying, Tubman’s heroic status and the extensive coverage of her life add to the value she brings to undergraduate study, because students can be asked to question how she is remembered. A particularly important topic to centre those discussions around is how ability and disability figure in Tubman’s memorialisation. After she was struck on the head by a weight sometime between 1834 and 1836, she was subject to uncontrollable sleeping spells akin to narcolepsy. Whilst those uncontrolled sleeping spells are widely acknowledged within retellings of her life, they are usually presented as something that she overcame to live the legendary life that she is remembered for. That framing of her sleeping spells as obstacles conquered by a heroic woman who prevailed despite them can create a small, but nevertheless present, fissure between the legendary figure and the human realities she faced, by artificially separating the heroic Tubman from the disabled Tubman. That separation was certainly not true for the woman herself.

Ability and disability are increasingly present in discussions of Tubman’s life, such as in Deirdre Cooper Owens’ 2022 Ms. Journal article (Owens). However, the closest that biographies of Tubman have come to truly embedding disability into her narrative is by combining her sleeping spells with her famous visions. Examples of that approach can be seen in the biopic Harriet, which opens with one of Tubman’s sleeping visions and repeats the trope throughout the film (00:01:30-00:01:50). On one of those occasions, she is guiding a group of liberated people north. When one of the group attempts to wake her, another member of the group stops them, explicitly declaring that Tubman is “talking to God.” When she wakes up, she knows the route they must take to avoid danger (01:04:15-01:05:15)

Tubman herself did not shy away from detailing her sleeping spells when she retold episodes from her life, such as in her narration of her visit to Oliver Johnson of the New York Antislavery Society in 1857 to ask for twenty dollars to support a trip to the South, which features in Scenes. After Johnson refuses to give her the money, Tubman sits down and falls asleep. The fact that her sleep is not an ordinary sleep, but a result of her narcolepsy, is indicated by the portentous description that “deep sleep fell upon her.” When she awakes, Tubman “find[s] herself the happy possessor of sixty dollars, which had been raised among those who came into the office” (Tubman 109-110). Those examples from Scenes and Harriet both show her sleeping spells resulting in a positive outcome, but how do we accurately reflect the tension Tubman must have felt knowing that she could have fallen asleep at any moment as she led the Union Army up the Combahee River; and how would that tension influence the representation of Tubman as a historical figure?

Questions like the above are not only important in the ongoing work of retelling and recovering Tubman’s story, but would be incredibly valuable in undergraduate discussions, particularly in History and English Literature seminars and lectures. History students could be challenged to think about how biography deals with the complex combination of facts, myths, and societal importance that are brought together in an examination of Tubman’s life. English Literature students, whose courses familiarise them with myths and how they are created, could be asked to think about how myth functions when it comes into contact with biography.

Selected Bibliography

Conrad, Earl. General Harriet Tubman. Black Classic Press, 2019.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road To Freedom. Back Bay Books, 2005. E-Book, Kindle.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman. Simon & Schuster, 2019. ProQuest, URL: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=5964637. Accessed 02 March 2022.

Hobson, Janell, and Paula J. Giddings, editors. Meridians, vol. 12, no. 2, 2014. Project Muse, URL: https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/30924. Accessed 22 February 2022.

Humez, Jean M. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. One World, Random House, 2005.

Owens, Deirdre Cooper. “Harriet Tubman’s Disability and Why it Matters.” Ms. Journal, February 2022. URL: https://msmagazine.com/2022/02/10/harriet-tubman-disability-democracy/. Accessed 6 June 2023.

Sernett, Milton C. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. Duke University Press, 2007.

Telford, Emma P. “Harriet: The Modern Moses of Heroism and Visions.” Unpublished, c. 1905. Courtesy of Cayuga Museum of History and Art.Tubman, Harriet, with Sarah H. Bradford. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Documenting the American South, URL: https://www.docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html. Accessed 29 May 2020.

Kiefer Lambert (né Holland) completed his PhD and a short postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh between September 2018 and October 2023. He now works in professional services at the University of Manchester, where he supports academic staff with their funding applications.

Maïa Walcott is a multidisciplinary artist working across mediums and specialising in illustration, painting and sculpture. Her focus is on British Caribbean home-making traditions and how Caribbeans used art and culture to make a new ‘home place’ in Britain. She has illustrated for major organisations like the Wellcome Collection and has contributed her art to publications such as The Colour of Madness and The Bad Mind Zine.

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