Henry Louis Gates Jr.: How Did Harriet Tubman Become a Legend?tags: slavery, African American history, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harriet Tubman
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
In 1849, a young woman hurried along a path cutting through a marsh in Poplar Neck, Md., near the town of Preston. She was a slave, barely 5 feet tall. She was scarred from several beatings. She alternated between walking and running, like thousands of other slaves had before her, desperately hoping to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to the get to the North, to freedom in Philadelphia. With a great deal of luck and skill, she made it. And what did she do once she was free? Unlike virtually any other person before her or after, this fugitive slave turned around and walked back into slavery, counterintuitively, in order to free other slaves. And for this, she would become a legend.
Her name at birth was Araminta Ross. While the radical abolitionist John Brown called her "General" and claimed that her strength was "Most of a Man," she was known far and wide as "the Moses of her people." We know her today as Harriet Tubman. How a 27-year-old fugitive slave became what one of her biographers, Milton C. Sernett, calls "the all-comprehending hero of all time" is one of the most fascinating sagas in all of African-American history.
It is a curious coincidence that Tubman died 100 years ago yesterday, just a month after Rosa Parks was born. And just as curious to me is the fact that these two tough-minded, independent, courageous and deeply intelligent warriors for freedom have been "maternalized," as the historians Catherine Clinton (Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom ) and Jeanne Theoharis (The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks) put it in separate biographies of these two exceptionally strong and noble heroines, both of whose images now grace U.S. postal stamps....
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