Harriett Tubman’s Beautiful Mind

Moses: When Harriett Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weartherford, ill. Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, 2006, 48pp, ages 4-8)

Weatherford’s picture book bio ranks alongside So Tall Within (Gary D. Schmidt, ill. Daniel Mintner, Roaring Brook, 2018) as one of my favorites for Black History Month. It might even be an all-time pick for outstanding children’s biography.

Weatherford pays tribute not just to the indomitable Tubman (c.1822-1913) but to her unquenchable faith. Tubman’s ongoing dialogue with God punctuates and often provides the vehicle for the narrative. Nelson’s paintings, rich with color and form, pair perfectly with spare poetic text, uniting action and emotion.

“Harriet, your father
taught you to read the stars,
predict weather,
gather wild berries,
and make cures from roots.
Use his lessons to be free.

You will meet again.”

Designated Araminta at birth, Harriet chose to be known by her mother’s given name soon after her owner gave her in marriage to John Tubman. That she was eventually honored with the name of the Hebrew patriarch who led his people to freedom exemplifies her indelible mark on African-American history.

The Wikipedia summary of Tubman’s slave-smuggling years reads like a spy drama. By means of skill, sagacity, and courage, she led approximately seventy enslaved individuals to freedom, with no losses or fatalities. But selflessness and incredible stamina characterized Tubman’s entire life. She served as nurse and spy during the Civil War, cared tirelessly for her parents and other relatives despite her own poverty, campaigned relentlessly for women’s suffrage, and worked to establish a home for the aged on property she bought herself. In the late 1890s she underwent brain surgery without anesthetics.

In her youth, an enraged overseer had struck a blow to her head, which resulted in chronic pain, hallucinations, and the voices she often attributed to God.

“I set the North Star in the heavens
and I mean for you to be free.”

No doubt at least a portion of Harriet’s boldness stemmed from her steady conviction of God’s presence, help, and direction. Whether Tubman’s cognitive anomalies were genuine divine dialogues or the product of pathology, the form they took is noteworthy. Trauma-induced delusions could have been characterized by paranoia, depression, or desire for vengeance.

If Harriet’s visions were generated by her own mind, then what a mind it was. At a time when I have become particularly aware of my own ruminations, I am challenged to arrange my mental habits to cultivate courage, caring, and intimacy with God.

My search for an authoritative biography revealed that documentation of Tubman’s life is curiously scattered. Her desire to learn to write in order to pen her memoirs was never realized. An early account, written and later revised by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, has been viewed with skepticism by some historians. In 1943 journalist Earl Conrad found a publisher, with considerable difficulty, for his biography, Harriet Tubman.

It was not until the early ‘00s that several other biographies were released, none of which has enjoyed marked commercial success. The most popular appears to be Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton (Back Bay Books, 2005, 304pp). Milton C. Sernett’s Harriett Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Duke University, 20007) analyzes the various accounts from a historiographer’s point of view.

Regardless of the respective allotment of fact and legend in Harriett Tubman’s legacy, she was undeniably instrumental. Like her biblical namesake, she spoke with God and took decisive action. May she continue to inspire us to be mindful of God’s presence and to speak and act selflessly on behalf of justice and compassion.

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