Harriet Tubman’s Storied Journeys

written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson


Araminta “Minty” Ross, born into slavery in 1820, flees her plantation in Dorchester, Maryland and somehow manages to make her way 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she takes the free name that we know her by today—Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman’s life as an agent for the Underground Railroad is the subject of the Academy Award nominated movie, Harriet, and she also has a key role in Ta -Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, which tells the story of a young man with a similar background and talent who also becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad.harrietdirector

Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, tells Tubman’s life story as a fairly classic Hero’s Journey. As a girl and young woman, Minty Ross watches several of her sisters being sold to far away slave owners and being taken from her and the rest of her family. She marries a free African American, John Tubman, and obtains legal documents that confirm that her mother’s previous owner granted her children freedom—only to have her current plantation owner rip up the documents. Cynthia Eviro as Harriet TubmanUnable to bear a lifetime of enslavement, she flees north on foot (leaving her husband behind because she does not want to endanger his free status) and makes it to Philadelphia, a “free” state. Tubman joins the Underground Railroad and repeatedly risks her life to bring hundreds of black slaves to freedom even after her former owner places a large bounty on her head. Her ability to guide so many runaway slaves to freedom earns her the nickname, “Moses.” How does an actual person, rather than a mythical god or cartoon character pull this off?harriet-1563893309

 

Although the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tubman’s near magical successes, it provides a few hints on how a real person could become Harriet Tubman. When Tubman returns to Maryland after becoming a free woman, she discovers that her husband had presumed her dead and is now wed to another woman who is pregnant with his child. Tubman leaves him to his new family and now, single and childless, can take life-threatening risks without being psychologically torn apart by conflicting maternal loyalties and obligations. From the time that she gives up on her husband and marriage, Tubman is portrayed as being more devoted to freeing slaves than to personal relationships. 

Tubman is also depicted as having extraordinarily strong faith and intuition that manifests as spiritual visions and premonitions that forewarn her of imminent danger. Although the exact nature and origin of her visions is not explained (she is religious and also had a severe head injury as an adolescent), they seem to have given Tubman a combination of intuition and decisiveness that led others to trust her in the face of formidable odds. In the movie, her former master’s mother declares that she wants Harriet caught so she can be burned alive at the stake, “like Joan of Arc”—another well-known vision-driven crusader. HarrietFeat

A final element that may explain Tubman’s intense focus is suggested in a short scene in which Tubman is shown in a stately Philadelphia home, crying while working as a domestic alongside another maid who looks at her quizzically. It’s not hard to imagine that, having risked her life multiple times and survived a perilous solo escape to Pennsylvania, Tubman would not be satisfied with a “free” life of making beds for a wealthy white family. But what can an illiterate runaway slave without any family do?  Tubman decides to become a freedom fighter.

At the end of the movie we are told that Tubman went on to become a spy for the Union Army and the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In her later years, she worked for women’s suffrage and started a rest home for former slaves. She lived to be ninety-one.

Harriet TubmanAlthough the movie follows a Hero’s Journey narrative arc, I suspect that Tubman’s lived experience was at least as much a heroine’s journey  as hero’s journey. Her headaches, trances and visions were likely the result of the severe head injury she suffered when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and hit her by mistake. She suffered from epileptic-like seizures and hypersomnia—the inability to maintain normal consciousness during waking hours—for most of her adult life. Perhaps the adrenaline produced by being in terrific danger played a role in helping her feel alive and engaged after her head injury.

PBLA2A-00003Tubman was periodically recognized for her contributions to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War as a spy, nurse, scout, strategic advisor, and troop leader. However, she never received any pay for her work in the war and was denied veteran’s compensation for many years. After being heralded by newspapers for her work in the war, she was accosted by a train conductor while riding back to New York, where her parents lived, and was instructed to move to the less desirable smoking car. She produced government papers entitling her to ride in the car she was in and refused to move, whereupon the conductor enlisted several other passengers to help him force her to move, breaking her arm in the process. Most of her life, Tubman was penniless or nearly so, and what money she had was often spent providing food to the boarders who had even less than she did.

The movie, Harriet, depicts many of the amazing feats this determined woman accomplished. I look forward to another telling that shows the complexity of strategies Tubman used to persevere through her many challenges, hard times,  tough decisions, physical and emotional stresses, simple pleasures, and heartbreaks. I would welcome another story that depicts the myriad of ways Harriet Tubman helped herself and others who once were counted as only 3/5 people to believe and experience themselves as whole.

In Ta-Neshi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, The Water Dancerprotagonist Hiram Walker is portrayed as a male soul-kin to Harriet Tubman. Both were born slaves and both have similar talents for feats of miraculous transportation. In the magical realism of the novel, this talent is referred to as “conduction”—the ability to move people “magically” from one place to another based on the strength of the conductor’s desire and memory. Coates portrays Tubman as a mythical figure who appears and disappears and reappears at important moments. Hiram Walker, her psychic kin, is much more humanized and his story allows Coates to explore the psychological implications of post-freedom identity and purpose. Walker, too, becomes a daring agent for the Underground Railroad and much of the book leans toward a hero’s journey until he must confront how to integrate his family and community ties into his quest to fight slavery and re-connect families separated by it. I believe The Water Dancer is ultimately more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey.

And, of course, the struggle continues.unnamed

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Water Dancer


 “Gloria: A Life”: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, and move at the speed of trust”   

By guest blogger Maureen Murdock; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.

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Last year my partner, Bill and I went to a matinee performance of “Gloria: A Life, ” Emily Mann’s play about Gloria Steinem. The setting at the Daryl Roth Theater in lower Manhattan was arranged as if we were in a consciousness-raising group. The stage area was in the middle, carpeted with Persian rugs like Ms. Steinem’s own apartment. We, the audience, sat around the stage in bleacher-style rows covered with multi-colored pillows. Six aisles allowed for non-Gloria characters to come and go as scenes changed.  Images of Gloria’s life were projected above the stadium seating on two opposite walls. Christine Lahti, looking exactly like the feminist trailblazer in black bell-bottoms and tinted aviator glasses played Gloria.

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The first act traced Gloria’s life from small town girl taking care of her mentally ill mother in Dayton, Ohio through her rise to become an icon of the Second Wave of Feminism.  What was poignant is that Gloria became a journalist to get away from her mother and found out years later that her mother had been a newspaper journalist herself before Gloria was born. Her mother was then abandoned by her husband and became terminally depressed. Gloria realized, like so many of us who have had depressed mothers, that she ended up living her mother’s “unlived life.”

Film clips of Gloria from her time undercover as a Playboy bunny, to her early reporting on the women’s movement, to her involvement in the creation of Ms. Magazine (with many others in her living room), to images of her addressing the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D. C. appeared on the walls around us as the play evolved. Other actors played many other feminist leaders such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller, black and Native American leaders often left out of standard histories.

When her husband of three years died of cancer, Gloria turned to Wilma Mankiller. Wilma told Gloria a story about her own near death experience in her forties which included such a feeling of ecstasy that she didn’t want to return to the living when  given the choice. However, she did make the decision to live and assured Gloria that her husband probably was also gifted with an ecstatic release from his suffering in death.  The whole idea of death being an ecstatic experience gave me hope.

Gloria Steinem,  Image by © MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters/CorbisGloria had her own #MeToo moment before the movement was named. A New York Times editor suggested to Steinem that they “discuss her work in a hotel room this afternoon”; and in 1963, when she was sitting in a cab ride in between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Perhaps the most important part of Gloria’s coming of age was finding her voice by listening to others in consciousness-raising groups and speaking with other women. It surprised me to learn that she had a fear of public speaking and so she always invited another feminist like Florynce Kennedy or Bella Abzug with her colorful hats to share the stage with her. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle,” she says in the play and that’s exactly what the second act consisted of. At the end, there was a 20-minute talking circle in which we, the audience, were invited to share our own responses to what we had seen in the play or what we had lived. The guidelines were principles enunciated by Black Lives Matter projected on the walls in big letters: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”

The lights came up and the first person to raise her hand for a microphone was a 16-year old girl. I was pleased to see such a young woman present because most of the audience—almost all women and the few men—looked like survivors of the nineteen sixties. She said, “ I’m 16 and I grew up with a mother who always told me I could be anything I want to be. I appreciate the sacrifices that Gloria made for all of us and I’m really grateful to my mother for giving me the confidence that I can be anything I want to be.” Impressed by how articulate she was, we all clapped as Christine Lahti said, “There is the next Gloria Steinem!”16steinem1-articleLarge

An older woman, sitting high up in the bleachers said, “I want to tell you what it was like in the ‘60s. My husband was a student at Yale and I worked in the library to support us. There was a man who worked with me in the library and I found out that he was making more money than me. I talked to some of the other women who worked there and we went to our boss and asked for a raise. Our supervisor said, “Well, he’s a man. Someday he will have to support a family!” The woman replied, “Well, I am supporting a family. My husband is a student and I work to support us both.” (I nodded, thinking back to how I worked on a psych ward while my first husband was in law school). Having received no satisfaction from her supervisor, she went above him to one of the Deans, who eventually gave her a raise. She interrupted our applause by saying, “Wait! There’s a happy ending to that story. I got promoted and now that man works for me!” We all roared with approval.

There were a couple of men who raised their hands to speak. One man, who appeared to be in his early ‘50s, said, “I work for a company whose name is not important. I wanted to give a woman who works with me a 20% raise. I was told by the HR department (managed by a woman) that I could only give her a 10% raise. So I said, ‘Oh, I see. She’s a woman. We always pay a woman less.’ We all groaned. As he gave up the mic, he said, “She got the 20% raise. It works every time.” We hooted and hollered!

Another man, with thin graying hair, on the other side of the theater, took the mic and slowly said, “I have been crying throughout this entire performance. It touched me deeply.” We all got quiet and the woman sitting next to him put her arm around him. He continued through his tears. “I have been thinking about how oppressed I have felt throughout my entire life.” His comment surprised me.

When he spoke the word “oppressed,” I thought he was going to admit to situations in which he had oppressed women and apologize. Or that in seeing the play and identifying with women, it began to dawn on him that he had been oppressed during his life as well. But he didn’t explain how he felt oppressed and I began to feel cynical. This show was about how women have struggled against inequality and I felt that he was co-opting Gloria’s story for himself. He continued, “I’m 72 years old and I was a feminist before any other man was a feminist.” The audience sighed. I wanted to scream. How dare he claim that for himself.

Here was a man pulling on our heartstrings by comparing what he saw as his own oppression to the oppression of women we had just witnessed on stage. The principle of Low Ego had been abandoned: instead the man was inducing the audience into expressing sympathy and taking care of him.  Christine Lahti could have explained that the play wasn’t about male oppression, or called attention to the message on the wall.  She didn’t do either, at least not on this afternoon.  Instead, she fell into the trap of equating men’s and women’s circumstances by saying–with great warmth–“Thank you so much for your courage and your tears.”

He  successfully hijacked the moment.  But I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that the self-proclaimed first male feminist hadn’t grasped the concept of low ego.   And a moment is not the journey. As Gloria—A Life, Gloria Steinem herself, and many of the other speakers that day showed us, when you encounter high egos blocking the way, it’s a call to step around them–and keep moving.Gloria Steinem at Women's March, Photo by Jenny Warburg

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. teaches memoir writing at UCLA and in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s memoir certificate program, “Writing Down the Soul.” She is the author of the best selling book The Heroine’s Journey, which delineates the feminine psycho-spiritual journey, as well as four other books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and MemoryFathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward; The Heroine’s Journey Workbook, and Blinded by Hope: My Journey through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction published under a pseudonym. Maureen Murdock b&w jpeg

You can find her blog on her website:  www.maureenmurdock.com