Nancy Koester on The Currency of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman has yet to appear on the twenty-dollar bill or any federal note.  But the hero of the Underground Railroad has newly minted cultural currency of her own.  The biopic Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, delivers suspense and vindication.  And there’s a new biography:  She Came to Slay: the Life and Times of Harriet Tubman, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.  There must be something about Harriet Tubman that America needs right now:  a testimony that the North Star still shines through the fog of partisanship and prejudice.

Born in 1822 into slavery in Delaware, Harriet was a small child when two of her sisters were sold.  She heard their cries and felt her parent’s tears.  She spent her childhood as a hireling, performing disagreeable chores for neighbors.  She trapped muskrats, hoed weeds and scrubbed floors while the coins she earned jingled in her owner’s pocket.

When Harriet was still a child, an accident changed her life.  An angry white man, hurled a two pound weight at a black boy. The intended target dodged and the object hit Harriet’s forehead, fracturing her skull.  For the rest of her life she had “spells” that brought disturbing visions–horsemen chasing runaways, children crying for their parents. Harriet believed that God sent the visions to warn her of danger.

After she reached adulthood Harriet heard that she was going to be sold. She vowed to live free or die.  Though she had never been far from home, she must now travel some hundred miles through forest and field, and swamp.  Running by night and hiding by day, she eluded slavecatchers and found safety in Philadelphia.  But with her family still enslaved, she could not rest.

Soon she was heading South in disguise, to rescue others.  Over ten years she made thirteen trips and freed at least seventy people—earning the title “the Moses of her people.” But to slaveholders, she was a criminal with a price on her head.

On one trip, a man in her group panicked and begged to turn back.  “You can die right here,” she said, aiming her pistol at him. “Or go on with us.” Tubman knew that this man, once in the clutches of his master, would be whipped until he told all: the routes Tubman used, the secret hiding places and the friends who gave food and shelter.  Years later Tubman said, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Nancy Koester

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