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Sunday, February 19, 2012

book response: Harriet Tubman - The Moses of Her People



How does an illiterate escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, help 200 fellow slaves escape their plight from the antebellum southern United States? After reading this biography by her friend Sarah Bradford, I'd say she gives God all the credit. Her Christian faith is very prominent and unashamed, which is a shock to this reader 150 years later, but much appreciated. Bradford wrote the book to raise funds for Harriet's ministry in her old age, providing a rest home for aged former slaves. Regarding Tubman's faith, Bradford writes,

Harriet's religious character I have not yet touched upon. Brought up by parents possessed of strong faith in God, she had never known the time, I imagine, when she did not trust Him, and cling to Him, with an all-abiding confidence. She seemed ever to feel the Divine Presence near, and she talked with God "as a man talketh with his friend." Hers was not the religion of a morning and evening prayer at stated times, but when she felt a need, she simply told God of it, and trusted Him to set the matter right. p. 14

Tubman's faith is real and gritty. She doesn't stop at letting us know that not only did she pray for her owner's conversion but also for his death, so that his wickedness against here and her family would end. God responded to the latter prayer!

...all I could say was, 'Oh, Lord, convert ole master.' Den I heard dat as soon as I was able to move I was to be sent with my brudders, in the chain-gang to de far South. Then I changed my prayer, and I said, 'Lord, if you ain't never going to change dat man's heart, -kill him-, Lord, and take him out of de way, so he won't do no more mischief.' Next ting I heard ole master was dead; and he died just as he had lived, a wicked, bad man. p.14

The genocidal cancer of slavery was malignant and could not be confined to slave states, which resulted in the federal law, the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed slave catchers to head into free states to reclaim escaped human beings. Tubman had to conduct her escapees a couple hundred miles farther north into Canada to assure their freedom.

...she brought her people to what was then their land of Canaan; the State of New York. But alas! this State did not continue to be their refuge. For in 1850, I think, the Fugitive Slave Law was put in force, which bound the people north of Mason and Dixon's line, to return to bondage any fugitive found in their territories. "After that," said Harriet, "I wouldn't trust Uncle Sam wid my people no longer, but I brought 'em all clar off to Canada." p.22

Life in southern slave states was not the libertarian ideal some people I know claim it to be. The examples are abundant, but I keep finding new ones. One man was condemned to prison for possessing the most popular work of fiction in those times.

They met at the house of Sam Green, the man who was afterwards sent to prison for ten years for having a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in his house. p. 23

Slaves had no right to privacy, so their letters were previewed by whites to protect their "property".

Jacob was not allowed to have his letters in those days, until the self-elected inspectors of correspondence had had the perusal of them, and consulted over their secret meaning. These wise-acres therefore assembled, wiped their glasses carefully, put them on, and proceeded to examine this suspicious document. What it meant they could not imagine. p. 34

This mindset of slaves as property and not as fellow humans led to ridiculous assumptions about their fellow creatures, such as they did not care about the separation of their families.

I have often heard it said by Southern people that "niggers had no feeling; they did not care when their children were taken from them." I have seen enough of them to know that their love for their offspring is quite equal to that of the "superior race," and it is enough to hear the tale of Harriet's endurance and self-sacrifice to rescue her brothers and sisters, to convince one that a heart, truer and more loving than that of many a white woman, dwelt in her bosom. p. 37

Everyone Tubman liberated remained liberated and were never recaptured.

... of the three hundred and more fugitives whom Harriet piloted from slavery, not one was ever recaptured, though all the cunning and skill of white men, backed by offered rewards of large sums of money, were brought into requisition for their recovery. p. 25

Harriet Tubman later volunteered for the federal forces in the American Civil War as a nurse, a liaison to slaves bewildered by the invading forces, and as a spy. This 2nd hand account Bradford records while trying to retain the flavor of the local dialect

...Den I heard 'twas de Yankee ship[D] firin' out de big eggs, an dey had come to set us free. Den I praise de Lord. He come an' put he little finger in de work, an de Sesh Buckra all go; and de birds stop flyin', and de rabens stop cryin', an' when I go to catch a fish to eat wid my rice, dey's no fish dar. De Lord A'mighty 'd come and frightened 'em all out of de waters. Oh! Praise de Lord! I'd prayed seventy-three years, an' now he's come an' we's all free." p. 56

The irony of Tubman's life is that she should have been born free, but since slaves had no rights the neglect of their owner's wills was not uncommon, see the earlier book response to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In 1849 the young man died, and the slaves were to be sold, though previously set free by an old will. p. 58

Some Christian writers in today's dialogs over human rights claim that there is nothing in the Bible to use to argue against slavery. I don't think that is true, but I also like to hear about the Christians who found plenty in their faith to risk their lives and livelihoods to rescue slaves and oppose slavery. One person I haven't hear of before is Thomas Garrett, and what a mighty work he did. "She became known to Thomas Garrett, the large-hearted Quaker of Wilmington, who has aided the escape of three thousand fugitives..." p. 59

Recently, on Facebook, I was telling a pro-choice friend that my heros are the abolitionists, because they helped convince their nation that darker skin nor African genes did not affect the humanity, nor the human rights, of their neighbor, the slave. Slavery is still an awful issue today, please learn more from Love146, it's an agreed upon evil by most of society but still perpetuated.

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