NEWS & LETTERS, April 2004

Black/Red View

Harriet Tubman

by John Alan

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton (Little, Brown, 2004)

The first biography of Harriet Tubman, the most renowned conductor in the "underground railroad," was published in 1943. General Harriet Tubman, written by labor activist Earl Conrad, didn’t get many buyers and was soon out of print.

Since the 1960s, however, there has been a growing interest in Tubman. It created a controversy over the 1994 National History Standards. Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, attacked those standards as "revisionist" because they gave equal attention to Tubman and George Washington. Harriet Tubman, if she were alive, might consider this controversy totally absurd because Washington was a slave owner and she was an active abolitionist opposing the system of slavery.

There are three new Harriet Tubman biographies in print. They were recently reviewed by the historian James M. McPherson for The New York Review of Books

McPherson states, "Each of these books have particular strengths that complement the others and add up to a remarkable collective achievement. The most readable and the one that provides the clearest context of slavery and the Civil War is Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman." Clinton lets her reader know immediately that the life of a slave was a process of dehumanization from birth to death. Thus, when Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820 or 1822, she was just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Slaves rarely knew the actual year of their birth. But as children they "learned the twin maxims of slavery by harsh experience: their labor is not their own, and they could be deprived of kin. Although African Americans toiling in the field might be seen as the quintessential image of slavery, the more potent symbol of the system was the auction block."

Families were destroyed on the auction blocks. Mothers and fathers were sold to one slave buyer and their children to another slave buyer. Harriet Tubman wanted her family to escape this vile fate.


Harriet Tubman was to challenge this ruthless economic system that lived by the brutal exploitation of Black slave labor. Clinton points out that both the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the prohibition of the importation of Black slaves from Africa and the Caribbean after 1808 "had a profound impact on slavery in the United States--with especially drastic results for slaves in the upper South, where Tubman and her family lived."

One result was: "Suddenly, enslaved African-American women, already expected to perform harsh and exacting physical labor, became the sole legal source of slave labor." In other words, enslaved African-American women were forced to produce both material commodities for the market as well as human laborers who would produce more commodities for the market.

This dual exploitation of African-American women made the Maryland slaveholders extremely wealthy. They sold the children of African-American women to owners of Southern cotton plantations at a high price. Harriet Tubman lost two of her sisters in this diabolic exploitation.

According to Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman heard a rumor in 1849 that her master was planning to "sell her down the river" and she had to take action. The white woman who aided her in escaping was undoubtedly one of the many women, white and Black, with whom she had made contact in the area. The white woman gave her a slip of paper to deliver to the home of another white woman, who ordered her brusquely to take a broom and sweep the yard. This was a show to make her appear as a servant, at the very moment she had entered into the Underground Railroad. When the woman’s husband came home that evening, he loaded Tubman into his wagon and transported her in the dark to another town where she was directed to another station.

Harriet Tubman later became the most prominent "abductor" on the Underground Railroad. Meaning, she went deep into the South to bring slaves out. Only very few had the courage and the skill to engage in this dangerous activity. Conductors only conveyed slaves from one specific depot to the next depot. The abductor went into the very center of slavery and organized willing slaves into an expedition. "She spread the word along the slave grapevine, informing members of plantation communities about the time and place for her rendezvous with candidates for escape. She might provide false information at first to flush out any betrayers. Once she found local prospects to her satisfaction, Tubman made her final appeal… ‘She directed them by her songs, as to whether they might show themselves or continue to lie low…No one would notice what was sung by the old colored woman as she trudged along the road.’"


She must have led hundreds of African Americans to freedom. She never learned to read or write, which as Raya Dunayevskaya points out, might have led some to underestimate her intelligence. In 1975, Dunayevskaya said, "Sojourner Truth and sometimes also Harriet Tubman are dutifully mentioned, condescendingly admitting their bravery--and of course their suffering as slaves--but never as Reason which drove the educated to face reality: that the Black women were the orators, generals, and, yes, thinkers, whereas they, the middle-class intellectuals, were but subordinates." ("Today’s Women Theorists" reprinted in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, Wayne State University Press, 1996). As Clinton documents, Tubman was consulted by John Brown about the lay of the land at Harpers Ferry, set the date for his attack, and later became a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Once the war broke out, she knew it had to be about freeing the slaves and NOT saving the Union. She said at the end of 1861 to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child: "I’m a poor Negro; but this Negro can tell Mister Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free."

This was Marx’s criticism of Lincoln at the same time: that he was not winning the Civil War because he did not make emancipation of the slaves the main issue of the War.

This month a statue was erected in Eastern Maryland in honor of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in spite of opposition by local veterans who wanted to preserve the court lawn for a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers. No mention was made of Harriet Tubman, also born in that area, whose participation in the Underground Railroad kept the issue of slavery in the forefront, as a problem that had to be resolved.

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