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Monday, February 20, 2012

52 Week 8 - Harriet Tubman: Moses

To the promised land

No one knows exactly when Harriet Tubman was born. At the time she was born, the birth and death records of slaves were only loosely kept. All we know is that she was born sometime in 1823. She was never given the dignity of an exact birth date. Such were the times in which she lived and grew up. 

There are a lot of people that you know about only in an abstract manner. Of course, being a good Black child, I had heard about the Underground Railroad and all that good stuff, but it was never quite real to me. That all changed after I had to do a project on her. I chose her because I thought it would be easy. It ended up being extremely difficult simply because she did so many great things that it was hard to keep my essay within the word limit. Certainly, it wasn’t a bad problem to have, but it says a lot about who she was and what she did. 

She rose from the humblest of beginnings and through sheer force of will propelled herself to becoming one of the most celebrated Black women of all time.

She was born a slave in 1823 and as part of that had to endure untold hardship. This led to her escape from slavery in 1849. What makes her truly great is that she took her life into her own hands and in daring escapes, managed to lead her family members and countless other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. This was made even more dangerous because she suffered from a form of epilepsy in which she would lose fall into a deep sleep at any time. Neither this nor the large bounty placed on her head ever deterred her. After the American Civil War broke out, she worked as a nurse and scout for the Union Army and was the first American woman to plan and lead a military operation, when she guided the Combahee river raid that helped liberate over 700 slaves. She was not only a staunch Abolitionist, but also a feminist activist and tireless advocate for humanism.

By the time she retired, she had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. 

The great Frederick Douglass of whom I have already written about once wrote to her and had this to say
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... 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”
And John Brown, who conferred with "General Tubman" about his plans to raid Harper’s Ferry, once said that she was "one of the bravest persons on this continent."

His respect and admiration for her are clear to see. After her death, she was buried with full military honours and she was honoured in myriad ways. It almost doesn’t seem enough and I think it’s unfortunate that she’s slowly fading into history. The more I read about her, the more I realized that while there are some people labelled ‘great’ for frivolous reasons, there also exists a class of people whose greatness and impact on history cannot really be quantified. I firmly believe that she rests in the latter category. Just for her involvement in the Underground Railroad alone, she would qualify. To lead one’s people out of bondage and to the promised land, well, that’s something almost biblical. She wasn’t called Moses for nothing. In all the years she was a conductor, she was never captured, and she never lost a passenger. 

Best quote:
‘Liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.’

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