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.
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. Unable 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?
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.
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.
Although 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.
Tubman 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, protagonist 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.