- Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History
In her speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Hilary Clinton claimed, “On that path to freedom, Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice: ‘If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.’” In evoking Tubman’s name and words, Clinton contextualized her historic run for the presidency of the United States in the struggle against slavery fought by the heroic figure of Tubman. This iconic Tubman is primarily the focus of Milton Sernett’s Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. From the beginning of his text, Sernett admits his book is less a biographical presentation of Tubman than it is “an exploration of the interplay of history and memory in the process by which Harriet Tubman has entered into the American cultural Valhalla, occupying a seat among the worthies of the past, such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass” (2). Like Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, it follows in the path of other recent biographies, being “primarily about the remembered Tubman—that is, about the myth that draws on the factual core but is often in tension with it” (3). It is this act of teasing out fact from myth and memory that makes Sernett’s volume a rich scholarly text and exciting historiography.
Although it is not a traditional biography, the first five chapters largely follow the chronology of Tubman’s life. Because Tubman was non-literate, Sernett draws on a plethora of secondary sources, both nonfiction and fictional, which document her life. Chapters one, two, and three explore how the major iconic images Tubman became known by, “Minty,” “Black Moses,” and “General Tubman,” developed over time. Chapter one, “Minty,” begins with the stories taught to school children about Tubman’s early slave experiences. [End Page 366] These narratives are often drawn from Sarah Bradford’s biographies, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) and Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886). However, the earliest biographical sketches of Tubman are found in A North-Side View of Slavery (Benjamin Drew, 1855) and Franklin B. Sanborn’s article “Harriet Tubman,” published in the Boston-based newspaper Commonwealth in 1863. They are based on oral accounts by Tubman, and those who knew her, of the abuse she suffered as a slave child, the work and beatings she endured, her initial attempts to escape, and her final successful flight to freedom. According to these works, Tubman was born to enslaved parents around 1820, given the birth name Araminta, shortened to “Minty,” and was the granddaughter of a “native African” without “a drop of white blood in her veins” (15). Historical evidence suggests she was born in 1822, yet the claim to native African ancestry has not been shown. As Sernett maintains, “Part of the difficulty in probing memories about Tubman is that by the time written testimonials to her greatness began to appear in profusion, the legend and the lady—that is, the iconic symbol and the historical person—were intertwined. This is especially true of the information passed down about Harriet’s experiences prior to her escape from Maryland in 1849. Nevertheless, authors who write accounts of Tubman’s life for young readers highlight the first decades of her life, hoping, perhaps, that children will find cause to be inspired by their young heroine’s triumph over adversity in spite of her hardships” (14).
While the “Minty” stories have been useful for juvenile audiences, adults have found Tubman’s later experiences after self-emancipation more cogent. Chapters two and three center on Tubman’s abolitionist activities and her work with the Union Army. In chapter two, “Moses the Deliverer,” Sernett examines Tubman’s role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and how she became known as “Black Moses.” Tubman earned this appellation, along with others like...