Saturday, March 8, 2008


(Harriet Tubman, photo by James A. Gensheimer)

I like to think of Harriet Tubman. (hat tip to Susan Griffin*)

I was thinking about her as I woke up today. I often see her referred to as "the Moses of her people". Well, if Moses had returned to Egypt 19 times over ten years to rescue more of his people, if he had grown up beaten (disabled from one blow) and starved instead of as a foster brother to the Pharaoh, if he had received no divine assistance when being pursued by those who would kill him -- then yeah, she'd be like Moses. The truth is, her personal courage and intelligence exceeds that of most other American heroes.

Why don't we hear as much about her as Malcolm X or W.E.B. Dubois? Here's a question for you: How much more attention would she get if she'd been a man?

We know what happened to the people that Moses led from slavery. Thanks to his actions, the world has known the likes of Sigmund Freud, Paula Abdul, Albert Einstein, Stan Lee, Carole King, Jonas Salk, Nadine Gordimer, George Gershwin, k.d. lang, Louis Brandeis, Katharine Graham, Karl Marx, Anne Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Levi Strauss, Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Dworkin, the motion picture, comedy and garment industries, and, oh yeah, Jesus.

Who are the descendants of those Harriet Tubman saved? Why don't we know their names, too?

(Harriet Tubman, far left, standing with a group of slaves whose escape she assisted)

She carried scars. She was put to work at around five or six. When she was 12, she began work in the fields. At around this time, she blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the field hand, but it struck Harriet on her head, leaving her with a condition like narcolepsy.

But she never lost a person in her rescue journeys. She was endlessly inventive. You should know all about her, go read about her. She worked as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, as well as a cook and a nurse. In later years, she fought for women's rights, and founded a home for the aged and infirm which still stands today. But she was denied a military pension, despite having led African-American soldiers on raids along the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863.

White people tend to believe that slaves were kept in bondage, in part, by fear of beatings and reprisal. We are also told that ending slavery was the reason why the North fought the Civil War, and that blacks were rescued by whites. None of these things are literally true, and it serves to maintain the myth of white supremacy, of African-Americans as helpless.

When physical violence was used on plantations, the African-Americans there were more likely to run away, to destroy profit, to use all the means at their disposal to make life wretched for the whites who abused them. Of course. It has been argued, convincingly I find, that the purpose of beatings and overt acts of violence was not to "keep the slaves in line" but rather to reinforce the numbness of the whites -- to add on layers of brutality to their psyches, so they would remain in their role as slaveowners despite the obvious, daily humanity of the people they owned.

That's the way oppression works. Create a lie to cover the real reason for subjugation, and repeat it in every cultural manner available, including the use of force, to keep both sides separated.

A woman dares run for President? Woman-hating comes out from under whatever wraps it might have (barely) worn. We know what Hillary Clinton has endured for a couple of decades. We know how tough she is, and what scars she carries. She's flawed, no doubt about it, and damaged from what she's gone through. She's no FDR. But neither is Barack Obama. He's not Harriet Tubman. And while he's just as assuredly flawed, we don't know the extent of his damage yet. If elected, he WILL disappoint us. If he weren't being compared to Bush, I think we'd be able to be more realistic about him.

Those of us old enough to remember the Nixon era can remember the shock we all felt when we discovered he kept an "enemies list". It was unheard of, then. Of course politicians opposed one another, and different factions worked to undo each other's goals. But Nixon labeled those who disagreed with him "enemies" and sought to use any means available to destroy their lives. It was a window into a secret world. It could have been a great lesson, a chance to admit American use of power (the role of overseers, for example) and change.

Real change means naming the problem and insisting on either reform of those who abuse humanity or removing them from a position where they can do harm. We're approaching another such reckoning day here in this country. I hear people's fears that our Congress will not enforce change. They want a President who will lead the way to cleaning house. They point to Clinton as a moderate, an insider who will not go far enough. I can't argue. But I see no evidence at all that Obama will, either. He's already turned belly up on the issue of gay rights.

What else is new. He's moderate as well, not a thoroughbred liberal.

I think it's important to remember the typical human response to bullying, to punishment, and to torture: We do whatever is asked of us until we feel free from threat, but we do not actually change or grow. This week Canada has informed us they will not be using any information obtained by our CIA, since it is tainted from being obtained by torture and is therefore worthless.

Molly Ivins, and others, in 2000 warned the country that Dubya was vindictive -- that if he did not get his way, he (and his crew) set about punishing those who disagreed with him, in illegal and unparalleled fashion. He's had our government in a reign of terror since. We now have a Congress infected with this fear. Two of its Senators (well, three if you count McCain, but I don't) are now running for President. None of them have pushed for impeachment. None of them have actually bucked the status quo. Cleaning house is going to take longer than the made-for-TV version.

We'll have to wait for our Harriet Tubman.

Happy International Women's Day.


(copyright Susan Griffin, from her book Like the Iris of an Eye, published by Harper and Row, New York)

I like to think of Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman who carried a revolver,
who had a scar on her head from a rock thrown
by a slave-master (because she
talked back), and who
had a ransom on her head
of thousands of dollars and who
was never caught, and who
had no use for the law
when the law was wrong,
who defied the law. I like
to think of her.
I like to think of her especially
when I think of the problem
of feeding children.

The legal answer
to the problem of feeding children
is ten free lunches every month,
being equal, in the child's real life,
to eating lunch every other day.
Monday but not Tuesday.
I like to think of the President
eating lunch on Monday, but not
And when I think of the President
and the law, and the problem of
feeding children, I like to
think of Harriet Tubman
and her revolver.

And then sometimes
I think of the President
and other men,
men who practice the law,
who revere the law,
who make the law,
who enforce the law
who live behind
and operate through
and feed themselves
at the expense of
starving children
because of the law.

Men who sit in paneled offices
and think about vacations
and tell women
whose care it is
to feed children
not to be hysterical
not to be hysterical as in the word
hysterikos, the Greek for
womb suffering,
not to suffer in their
not to care,
not to bother the men
because they want to think
of other things
and do not want
to take women seriously.
I want them to think about Harriet Tubman,
and remember,
remember she was beaten by a white man
and she lived
and she lived to redress her grievances,
and she lived in swamps
and wore the clothes of a man
bringing hundreds of fugitives from
slavery, and was never caught,
and led an army,
and won a battle,
and defied the laws
because the laws were wrong, I want men
to take us seriously.
I am tired of wanting them to think
about right and wrong.
I want them to fear.
I want them to feel fear now I want them
to know
that there is always a time
there is always a time to make right
what is wrong,
there is always a time
for retribution
and that time
is beginning.


letsdance said...

Dear Maggie,
You address the wrongs of this world in a strong voice. You give us reason to hope and reason to act.

I'd like to see your posts many more places -- places where they would be seen and read.

blessings, Jan

little gator said...

I must have had an odd education. I never learned a thing about X or Dubois in school. the little I learned in school about about MLK was current events then, not history.

But aroudn age 12 the class did read a short book on Harriet Tubman, and it got most of the major details, thought it implies she lived happily ever after in retirement after the way.

Two thinsg I remember that you didn't mention-she married her husband when he was a free black and she was a slave, and he never understood what the big deal was about her enslavement, which is why their marriage didn't last long. At least, that's the poplar story I've seen elesewhwre as well. She idd keep his last name, Tubman, for ther rest of her life.

The other was abotu her narcolespy apparently caused by the head injury. Soemtimes while leading a group north she would fall down apparently sleep. The group always stood around protectively hoping and praying they wouldnt be foudn before she owke up. This makes her perfect record of never losing a passenger even more remarkable.