- A Woman Called Moses: Myth and Reality
In the 1978 made-for-TV film, A Woman Called Moses, Cicely Tyson played the title role of Harriet Tubman. The film chronicled Tubman’s life, highlighting her early experiences as a slave as well as her prominent role as a conductor along the Underground Railroad. The movie’s narrator, Orson Welles, praised Tubman’s work in helping some three thousand slaves escape from slavery, her active role in the suffrage movement, and her position as a Union soldier who received military honors at her funeral. The problem with this description of Tubman, however, is that it relied heavily on hyperbole. While Tubman did help slaves escape along the Underground Railroad, she helped approximately seventy fugitives. She attended one women’s rights lecture where she recounted her experiences as a slave and never agitated for equal rights for women. Though she did aid Union soldiers by directing them to a Confederate supply line, she was not buried with military honors. A Woman Called Moses depicted a mythical portrait of this remarkable woman.1
In his well-researched and clearly written book, Milton Sernett carefully disentangles the legends about Harriet Tubman from the reality of her life. The author wants to understand how Harriet Tubman has been remembered and represented in American memory. The book is not a biographical portrait per se but rather an analysis of how and why Harriet Tubman “has captured the American imagination so strongly, especially in the recent past” (p. 3). Sernett gives himself two tasks: first, to recover the “historical” Tubman and, second, to contrast it with the “remembered” Tubman. Sernett argues that Tubman is “America’s most malleable icon, with significance for much more than how we are to remember the nation’s struggle with the issue of slavery” (p. 3).
Sernett has published numerous studies about African American culture and religion with a specific geographical focus on upstate New York. This gives him a unique perspective on the life of Harriet Tubman, much of which she lived in Auburn, New York. To separate the myths about Harriet Tubman from the reality, Sernett pores over a wide variety of sources ranging from [End Page 49] archival materials to Tubman references in popular culture. He sets out to have “an extended conversation with the reader about how a black woman, once enslaved but self-liberated, came to occupy an extraordinarily prominent place in the American collective memory” (p. x). The book is therefore directed at both an academic audience as well as a more general readership interested in this woman’s extraordinary story.
The book is structured thematically around the ways that Harriet Tubman has been represented by various individuals, different political movements, and by herself. In particular, Sernett explores her role in the Underground Railroad, her activism in movements such as suffrage and abolition, and her experience as a religious icon. Sernett posits that various groups have co-opted the image of Harriet Tubman to serve their own interests and views. He provides ample and fascinating evidence to prove this point through detailed discussions of the ways that both nineteenth- and twentieth-century reformers have used a mythologized Tubman to represent their causes.
Sernett goes on to argue that Harriet Tubman herself helped compose her larger-than-life persona. The evidence for this argument, however, is thin, and Sernett seems to overstate Tubman’s agency in constructing the narrative of her life. This is particularly true when one compares this book to Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. Essentially, Sernett sets out with the same task as Painter: to separate the myth from reality surrounding a black female icon. Painter provides much evidence to illustrate how Sojourner Truth marketed herself. In particular, Painter examines how Truth supported herself financially by selling her biography, how she traveled the country to speak to abolitionist and women’s rights groups, and how she promoted self-help at lectures she delivered to emancipated slaves. Moreover, Truth...