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Original ABWs: Harriet Tubman

I was born in the Seventies, and my parents did the proper post-Civil-Rights-Era childrearing thing of bombarding me with Afrocentricity from birth, since they knew I’d get soaked in Eurocentricity once I hit school-age. So I didn’t read “traditional” Grimm-esque fairy tales until I was much older; instead I got stuff like “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears”. And when I started reading middle grade books, I didn’t get Anne of Green Gables or other classics as birthday and holiday presents; instead I got biographies of George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass and other great African Americans. Read ’em, too. But they were all men — a fact which I complained to my father about, eventually. The next bio he gave me was of Harriet Tubman.

The last one stands out in my mind for two reasons: a) the particular book I read had an especially striking cover. I can’t find it now, unfortunately — don’t remember the author — but the image was similar to this one:

HT biography cover

So that was my first introduction to great black women of American history — a badass mama with a bigass gun. (I missed most of the heroines of the blaxploitation film movement, note; before my time. Tubman was badder anyway.)

The second reason this memory stands out is because I immediately identified with Tubman in a way that I had not with the other famous historical figures. Compared to hers, their stories seemed somehow… tame. That Carver boy was wicked smaht, right; and Douglass had escaped from slavery, become a great orator, and grown up to look amazingly like my father, sure. I’m not diminishing their achievements at all. But Tubman’s story spoke to the nascent militant in my soul — that part of me which read accounts of slavery and thought, If I’d lived back then, I would never let those fuckers break me! This was total bullshit; if I’d lived back then, I would’ve learned to endure the brutal work and the rape and the torture and the degradation of my soul, as the people who actually lived back then had to do. But already at that age — I was maybe 8 years old — I was beginning to see the monstrous injustice of the system of racism, from its historical roots to its modern reality. And although the real anger wouldn’t hit ’til later, when I was further along in my development, the seeds of it sprouted when I read about Harriet Tubman, because she did what I in my bravado like to think I would’ve done: she fought back. And she won.

I needed this role model, as a young black girl. Despite all my exposure to Afrocentric history, I got the same treatment as most other black girls whenever I showed my anger: the people around me tried their damnedest to suppress it. My mother insisted that anger wasn’t “ladylike.” An early teacher sent me to the principal’s office for my “behavioral problem”. (My crime? Rolling my eyes at something that sounded stupid. I was lucky; a lot of black girls got permanently mislabeled and stigmatized for stuff like that.) Meanwhile, my pastor delivered podium-thumping sermons about how my anger would destroy The Black Family ™ and maybe even turn black boys gay. (Yeah. I know.) Everywhere I turned, I got hit with the message: your anger is bad. Dangerous. The worst thing anywhere, ever. A menace to society.

But learning about Tubman taught me a different message: your anger is necessary and right. Channel it. Keep it hidden from those who are your enemies. Let them underestimate you. Let it give you strength. And then, when you’re ready, let it loose. Use it to help yourself, and others. Your anger can change the world.

So I give props to you, Harriet, for teaching me what real womanhood is all about.

12 thoughts on “Original ABWs: Harriet Tubman”

  1. Nina says:

    This post is awesome! :)

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  4. Martha says:

    I knew there was more to the world than Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. I Knew it!!!

    (Hi Nina!!)

  5. Jezebella says:

    BTW, there is a Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon,GA, and a Harriet Tubman Home Museum in Auburn, NY. Both fine institutions, worth visiting if you find yourself nearby.

  6. Serene says:

    Oh, god, I loved Harriet Tubman so much when I was little. Her stories really instilled in me the belief that human beings can push past fear and oppression and do really difficult things, at great costs to themselves, to make the world better. She’s still who I think of when I am talking myself into enduring something difficult that needs enduring.

  7. deborah says:

    I love that cover you’ve linked. That’s got to be by Leo and Diane Dillon, right? (Who, now that I think of it, also illustrated Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.)

  8. Elaran says:

    I read about Harriet Tubman in an old English textbook. Her story was one of the passages we had to do comprehension etc on and I found her story so interesting and inspirational.

    because she did what I in my bravado like to think I would’ve done: she fought back. And she won.
    Yes, her story was one of others who made me realise that the person who saves the day, makes the stand, does something so incredibly important and significant was not always male.

  9. InfamousQBert says:

    i’m not a woc, but i definitely relate to the lessons you learned there. bravo on your parents for giving you those books so early, and bravo to you for learning the lessons so well.

  10. Hippodameia says:

    I read petry’s book about Tubman in third grade, and it really did change my life.

  11. Quercki says:

    Everybody needs WOC role models. (Although I’m glad the civil rights act gave me G.W. Carver for one of my role models.)

    In my children’s school, the kindergartners make dioramas of role models for Black History month. They are given a handout with one-paragraph bios to help them. When my first child brought it home, I pointed out that women were under-represented. (2 out of 14) I think I directed the teacher to “I Dream a World.” (fabulous book, highly recommended, too advanced for kindergartners.)

    Three years later, I again reminded the teachers that half of all African-Americans are women, and this assignment needed to be improved. I bought her the book.

    Two years later (last kid) the handout had been revised to include an equal number of women and men.

  12. Quercki says:

    The lesson about anger is a really important one–I wish I’d learned it.

  13. canek says:

    I used to teach at an elementary school in Harlem. I came across this book of Harriet Tubman with one of my students, Abu. Abu was a briliant nine year old of Mali heritage. I don’t like to show favoritism with my students… but he was exceptionally brilliant.

    Abu asked with surprise, “why does Harriet Tubman have a gun?”

    I answered, “because she was an outlaw. She was breaking the law by helping slaves escape and there were people who wanted to arrest her or kill her. She needed to defend herself.”

    I think this cover art does a great job of dispelling the stereotypical image we know of Mrs. Tubman as a frail woman in her old age.

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